Head Games by Christopher Nowinski

October 16, 2019

Although officially a book about (US) football, this study of a concussion crisis is important reading for anyone involved in professional wrestling.

Nowinski is of course the former Tough Enough and WWE star Chris Harvard, who retired from the ring after a series of concussions. His account of these symptoms, the way the WWE officials reacted, and his decision to quit the business make up the first few chapters.

The rest details and collates research into concussions, most notably among high school football players. It represents an important medical breakthrough, albeit one misrepresented and even mocked by some in the wrestling world.

Nowinski’s research does not simply show that blows to the head that cause concussions can have long-term health implications, or that repeated chairshots to the head are a bad idea.  Instead, he illustrates a very different point: when a person who has recently suffered a concussion goes on to suffer a second concussion before being fully recovered, the medical effects are spectacularly magnified.  This is clearly an issue in sports such as US football where it had too often been the case that a concussed player is sent back on the field in the same game, let along missing a match the following week.

But it’s also hugely relevant to pro wrestling where, with wrestlers often working with the same opponents and repeating a routine several nights in a row, there’s often a good chance that the circumstances causes a concussion may be repeated. Indeed, it was a series of table matches in which Nowinski’s head banged into a table for the finish almost every night, which made his problems a career-ender.

The medical research sections of the book are heavy-going at times, though certainly not impenetrable, but it is worth bearing in mind this is more of a scientific than a literary book.  Thankfully the book, originally published shortly before Chris Benoit’s infamous final days, is in some way dated. A multi-million dollar lawsuit has brought the issue to greater attention in the NFL, while WWE has taken several steps to minimize the risks of concussion, even to its own cost. Still, Head Games remains a valuable read to discover exactly why the issue is so important.

(Note: this review is based on the original 2007 release, subtitled “Football’s Concussion Crisis.” The current edition, released in 2012, is expanded to include Nowinski’s work in establishing the Sports Legacy Institute and the battles to have concussions taken seriously by sports groups such as the NFL.)

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