In 2007, WWE disputed Sports Legacy Institute findings that a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head may have contributed to former champ Chris Benoit killing his wife and son before taking his own life.
On Wednesday night, WWE will be honored by SLI with an Impact Award at a dinner in Boston for its work on concussion issues.
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Chris Nowinski, the former WWE superstar who was forced to retire due to his own concussions before founding SLI with Dr. Robert Cantu in 2007 -- just days before the Benoit tragedy, actually -- says the evolution in WWE's stance on concussions is no different than the journey the sports world has traveled to properly understand the dangers of head injuries.
"I started working with WWE back in 2001," said Nowinski, who left pro wrestling in June 2003 after suffering daily headaches. "Back then, you know, concussions weren't discussed much among the wrestlers. I didn't understand how dangerous they were. No one across my athletic career had really taught me the right things. So I lied about my concussions. WWE, like everybody else, was following the guidelines that said it was OK to have people go back if the symptoms went away."
As for WWE's resistance to accept findings from a study of Benoit's brain that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Nowinski said, "It was in the very early stages of the CTE research and very few people kind of understood it in those times, and it wasn't the same bulk of evidence that there is today about the disease."
According to the SLI website, CTE is found in the brain of athletes and others with repetitive brain trauma, including multiple concussions. The result is progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the buildup of an abnormal protein called tau. Listed effects include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.
After the Benoit incident, WWE banned chair shots to the head -- the company in 2011 announced that Triple H and the Undertaker were fined for doing so at WrestleMania XXVII. According to WWE's corporate website, the company started taking "significant steps" in December 2008 toward dealing with head trauma with the implementation of the ImPACT Concussion Management Program utilized extensively in the college and pro sports world.
Paul Levesque, better known as Triple H to fans, is now the company's executive vice president of talent and live events and will accept the Impact Award along with Stephanie McMahon, his wife and WWE Executive Vice President. (Newsday requested an interview with Levesque, but was told by a WWE spokesman he was unavailable due to his schedule.)
Nowinski said discussions he had with WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon in 2011 got the ball rolling toward joining forces for the cause.
"He let me know how proud he was [of SLI], how far the research had come, the influence we had in changing the culture in sports," Nowinski said of McMahon. "And he really opened up the door to saying how could we work together, both to protect the talent in WWE, but it's also ingrained that they're supporting CTE research that will benefit athletes, military veterans and the world at large."
Earlier this year, WWE gave a $1.2 million gift to SLI for a three-year research program led by Boston University researchers Ann McKee, M.D., and Lee Goldstein, M.D., Ph.D., to develop a treatment for CTE.
But Nowinski is just as impressed by the access he has been given by WWE to educate wrestlers so they don't face the same problems he has. Nowinski said he's traveled three times in the last couple of months to educate WWE talent about head trauma. WWE performers are required to attend an hourlong presentation by Nowinski on how to understand concussions and how to use that information to protect both themselves and their opponents.
When asked about WWE's reaction compared to pro sports, Nowinski was complimentary.
"The NFL has also been supportive financially of our research," Nowinski said of the league, a past Impact Award honoree. "I think what's most special to me -- I do a lot of speaking on this and a lot of training. Very few professional leagues have invited me in front of their talent, in front of the athletes. because I think they're sometimes concerned about what message they'll get, and their ability to maybe put them back into a big game when they need them. I think some leagues like that the players don't necessarily know the risks they're being exposed to."
Nowinski also cited Major League Lacrosse, of which the New York Lizards are a member, for access to players and allowing SLI to help the league write its concussion policy.
Nowinski, who wrestled as Chris Harvard after playing football at Harvard, said he had six concussions in his last five years of athletic activity -- two in football and four in wrestling. But he took numerous blows to the head playing football growing up and said he is sure the "vast majority" of his concussions were football-related.
Those daily headaches that plagued him for five years are gone. He credits exercise and taking the ADHD drug Strattera, but adds that he's never gotten back to 100 percent.
"I certainly feel that I'm sharp, but I'm not perhaps as sharp as I once was," Nowinski said.
So, while excited about the WWE-funded research for treatment of CTE, Nowinski said being proactive is still the key.
"Our better hopes right now," he said, "are to prevent it from happening in the first place."