CHICAGO — That familiar sadness struck Chris Nowinski when he heard about former NFL player Corwin Brown’s recent standoff with police and self-inflicted gunshot wound.
He was hardly shocked, though, when relatives suggested the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy might be to blame for the incident in Indiana earlier this month.
“There’s a good chance they’re right,” he said.
As the CEO of the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University, Nowinsky has studied closely the effects of repeated blows to the head, an issue that has become a hot-button topic in recent years. He spoke Monday at a workshop for high school coaches, administrators and trainers in Chicago, a city that in January passed an ordinance requiring public and private schools to take athletes who show concussion symptoms off the field. It also fines schools if they allow youngsters to participate with concussions.
The long-term effects of repeated blows to the head have dominated discussions in the NFL, around the NCAA and into the prep ranks for some time now, with states passing laws intended to protect young athletes from trauma. Many remember pro wrestler Chris Benoit’s suicide after murdering his wife and young son in 2007. He showed signs of CTE.
So did Dave Duerson, the former Pro Bowl safety who helped those nasty 1985 Chicago Bears shuffle their way to the championship. He committed suicide in February. Bob Probert, who spent part of his career as one of the NHL’s greatest enforcers with the Chicago Blackhawks, had the disease, too.
Then there’s Brown, a former Notre Dame defensive coordinator who was taken from his home after a nearly seven-hour standoff with police in Granger, Ind. He faces three felony counts for allegedly holding his wife hostage with a handgun and bruising her during the standoff, and his family released a statement painting a gloomy picture of a man who has become distant, suspicious and depressed since leaving the field.
His relatives believe he, too, might have CTE.
The NFL and NHL require players who have suffered concussions to be cleared by an independent neurologist before they’re allowed to play again. The NFL also made significant changes in offseason workout schedules, reducing team programs by five weeks and cutting organized team activities (OTAs) from 14 to 10 sessions as part of the new labor deal. Practice time and contact is more limited now, too, but youth and high school players don’t have a union on their side.
They’re relying on the adults to look out for their best interests. They’re also more susceptible to concussions because their bodies are still developing and they’re not necessarily using the best equipment. Young children might not possess the language skills to alert coaches who might not recognize the symptoms that there is a problem.
That’s why, officials say, education is so important.
“There’s no lobby for 8-year-old kids,” Nowinski said. “There are coaches out there doing four full days of practices a week, 50 times a year having these kids collide, suffering brain trauma. Unnecessary.”
A product of suburban Arlington Heights, Ill., Nowinski is one of four chairmen of the Chicago Concussion Coalition. The group will be conducting about 40 workshops over the next year like the one on Monday, an event that had some celebrity power to go with politicians and doctors.
It included former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer and Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan.
“You think of concussions, you think of it as a football issue,” said Hillenmeyer, who missed almost all of last season because of a concussion he suffered in the preseason and got released. “That’s not necessarily the case.”
Corgan figures he suffered at least one concussion and it “might have been 20, it might have been 15, it might have been 40” playing youth baseball, basketball and football, although he never was diagnosed. He said he remembers getting knocked out by an inadvertent elbow to the face in a basketball game, but back then, blows to the head weren’t taken so seriously. Players just got thei r bell rung and were soon back in the game.
“There was no culture there to say, ‘Are you OK?”’ said Corgan, who’s from the Chicago area and took up the guitar when he didn’t make those high school teams. “Getting your head hurt was like, that’s something you could overcome.”
Now, ironically, Corgan is running his own independent pro wrestling organization — Resistance Pro. He’s taking steps to minimize long-term damage by banning dangerous moves as “chairshots” to the head and making it clear wrestlers who use them won’t perform for him again.
“You can’t take all the risk out, but you can minimize the risk,” he said.