Head Games

I have always enjoyed wrestling with difficult truths. I have confronted them in politics; I have confronted them in the military; and I now believe it is time to confront another difficult truth: that the concussion problem in football and other contact sports is far more serious than any of us want to believe, and it is time to do something about it.You may know me from my time as the governor of Minnesota, as a professional wrestler, or as an actor, but before I was any of those things, I was a football player. I started in grade school, playing for five years, and then played three seasons for Theodore Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as a defensive end. I went on to play a year of service ball in the Navy while stationed in Subic Bay in the Philippines, and a year of junior college football upon returning to the States.

Since I stopped playing, I have remained an avid football fan and have tried to stay close to the game. I did television and radio color commentary for the XFL and for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings of the NFL. I love it so much I was even a volunteer football coach at Champlin Park High School in Minnesota for five years.

When you’ve been so close to the game for so long, you learn to love the positives of the game, but you also become intimately familiar with the negatives. The one negative that jumps off the screen every time I watch the game are the inevitable concussions. As a fan it is confusing to watch, because sometimes they are dealt with as a serious injury to the most important part of a person’s anatomy, the brain, while other times they are joked about by the players, the announcers, the coaches, . . . nearly everybody. Which is it?

Christopher Nowinski’s comprehensive, indisputable research has convinced me that these injuries are no joke. I met Chris when I was a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. (Yes, we are the only two Harvard-affiliated professional wrestlers in the world, but I’m the only one that taught there!) Chris Harvard, as he is known, had a promising future with my former employer, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment, before the concussions he sustained over the course of his athletic career turned his life upside down.

And while that may have been a loss for the wrestling world, it is unquestionably a gain for the sports community. He has turned his personal struggle into a quest to educate others on an injury that still seems to be as much of a mystery today as it was when I suffered my one serious concussion in a high school football game. I rammed heads with the fullback in the middle of the third quarter. The next thing I remembered was seeing the scoreboard; it said 5:51 was left in the fourth quarter. Apparently I had been pulled from the game and was sitting on the bench that whole time. As I became aware of my surroundings, everything I saw appeared to be at the end of a long tunnel. It was like having an out-of-body experience. That day my coaches and trainer did the right thing by keeping me out of the game while I was concussed. What this book exposes, and what creates a real sense of urgency, is that my experience may not be the norm. Chris’s research shows that most concussions are going undiagnosed, and most athletes aren’t getting proper treatment. Multiple concussions, especially left untreated, can lead to serious long-term problems, including depression and dementia.

I understand that football is a tough sport, and that half the game is about playing through pain and battling through injuries. You don’t graduate Navy SEAL training without knowing how to push yourself. But even I know that toughness has its limits, especially when we’re talking about a game where 95% of the players have not reached the age of maturity. This is the kind of book that everybody who is a part of this game—or any contact sport—needs to read. It has critical information for current players, former players, and future players. It has important guidelines for the parents who give permission to their children to put that helmet on and for the coaches and trainers who are the guardians of those kids on the playing field. It has fascinating stories for the NFL fans who want to know why their heroes keep retiring year after year from post-concussion syndrome. Chances are that if you play football, nothing terrible will happen to you. But chances are you will suffer at least one concussion every season. And the difficult truth is that each concussion can have serious consequences on its own, but that successive concussions can have even greater consequences. It is the responsibility of players and parents to learn what those consequences are and what can be done to prevent them. No one should take the field without a clear understanding of the risks of the game, especially when just a little education can prevent so much suffering over the course of a lifetime.JESSE VENTURA

former governor of Minnesota
and former NFL commentator