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Former Harvard football player talks the dangers of CTE

Chris Nowinski, pictured testifying on brain injuries before a Senate special committee in 2014, is a former All-Ivy defensive end for the Harvard football team. Getty Images/file

The Boston Globe presents the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, a weekly podcast on public policy, politics, and global issues. HKS PolicyCast is hosted by Matt Cadwallader.

Earlier today the Concussion Legacy Foundation announced that legendary Oakland Raider Quarterback Ken Stabler has been posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Stabler is the 90th of 94 former NFL players studied at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank here in Boston to be found with CTE.

This week on the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, Chris Nowinski, a former All-Ivy defensive end for the Harvard football team who cofounded the Concussion Legacy Foundation, makes the case that hits to the head in contact sports, and especially in football, are a public health crisis.


“When this game was developed,” says Nowinski, “no one ever thought football was appropriate for a 5-year-old. . . . We need to create a culture where we don’t hit kids in the head on purpose because it looks cool when adults do it.”

In the full interview, he explains what we know about CTE, how it is diagnosed, what puts athletes at risk, and how to prevent it. He stresses that the issue is not just about concussions, but also the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of subconcussive hits football players take to the head.

“There are 5 million playing football under the age of 18,” says Nowinski. “Is there a future for hitting young people in the head 1,000 times and giving them brain disease before they’re old enough to understand the consequences of their actions? I think we all know the answer.”

You can listen to the episode above, or download the episode for free on iTunes.