In the summer of 2007, soon after retired pro wrestler Chris Nowinski created a concussion research foundation he would affiliate with Boston University, a star wrestler named Chris Benoit strangled his wife, choked to death his 7-year-old son, and hanged himself.
The 40-year-old Benoit previously had told Nowinski he experienced “more [concussions] than I can count.’’
“I was certain Benoit had suffered from CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy],’’ Nowinski wrote in his book, “Head Games: The Global Concussion Crisis.’’
Nowinski and his then-partner, Dr. Bennet Omalu, wasted little time procuring Benoit’s brain to examine. And when Omalu diagnosed Benoit with severe CTE — the first confirmation of the degenerative brain disease in a World Wrestling Entertainment performer — Nowinski widely publicized the findings, helping to galvanize national concern about traumatic brain injuries and catapult his foundation to prominence.
Nine years later, Nowinski faces a possible dilemma. He has since split bitterly from Omalu and embraced WWE as a multimillion-dollar sponsor of his BU-affiliated Concussion Legacy Foundation. And as WWE fights a concussion lawsuit in part by challenging Omalu’s diagnosis of Benoit, the question arises: Were Nowinski compelled to choose sides, would he defend Omalu’s findings or support WWE, the largest benefactor that Nowinski’s foundation has publicly acknowledged?
WWE has subpoenaed Omalu, a forensic pathologist who first discovered CTE in a professional football player, for all his research on Benoit and other deceased professional wrestlers. The subpoena also calls for Omalu to turn over all his correspondence with Nowinski and the Concussion Legacy Foundation, formerly the Sports Legacy Institute.
When Nowinski was asked by the Globe if he stands by Omalu’s diagnosis of Benoit, he issued a statement through his foundation.
“I am not a neuropathologist and I relied on Dr. Omalu’s statement that the brain met his criteria for a CTE diagnosis,’’ he said. “I had no reason to question the diagnosis.”
However, Nowinski wrote in his book that he “later found out [Omalu] was working on cases in his garage, publicly claiming to speak to the ghosts of those he studied.’’
The Globe asked Nowinski if those purported revelations later caused him to have doubts about Omalu’s diagnosis of Benoit. A foundation spokesman said Nowinski had no further comment.
Omalu’s diagnosis of Benoit was affirmed at the time by two leading concussion specialists, neurosurgeons Julian Bailes and Robert Cantu. Omalu described Nowinski’s comment about his garage and ghosts as “an attempt to ridicule me.’’
Born and raised in Nigeria, Omalu now serves as the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County and teaches at the University of California, Davis. He is a founding member of the Pennsylvania-based Brain Injury Research Institute, and he has described himself as a devout Catholic who believes the spirits of the dead live on, as he has demonstrated by speaking to subjects during autopsies. He was portrayed by the actor Will Smith in the 2015 movie “Concussion.”
As for working in his garage, Omalu said, “I brought brains home because everybody did not believe in what I was doing. I didn’t want a supervisor telling me to stop examining brains.’’
He said he also wanted to protect his intellectual property by working independently and funding his own research.
If Omalu’s diagnosis of Benoit is discredited, his stature would suffer in the competitive field of CTE research and WWE would score a potential legal victory. But Nowinski also could be damaged for having built his reputation and foundation in large part by aggressively promoting Omalu’s diagnosis of Benoit.
In 2007, Nowinski orchestrated a media blitz to herald Omalu’s findings in Benoit’s case and cite CTE’s possible connection to Benoit’s crimes. The campaign included appearances on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “Nightline.’’
WWE was not pleased. The company issued a statement, saying the “attempt to explain the murder of Benoit’s family was possibly caused by some form of dementia as a result of concussions is speculative.’’
Soon after, WWE sent Nowinski a letter requesting “complete access to all of [his foundation’s] information regarding its work on the Benoit case.’’ Nowinski did not comply, according to a 2010 letter from WWE to Bailes seeking the information.
Those letters as well as others to a lawyer representing Omalu were part of WWE’s unsuccessful effort over the years to obtain the research material on Benoit.
In April, only days after news broke that Omalu had agreed to study the brain of WWE star Joan Laurer for possible CTE, WWE subpoenaed all his records on professional wrestlers. Laurer, who wrestled under the name Chyna, was found dead in her bed at age 46.
Should Laurer be diagnosed with CTE, the findings could complicate WWE’s defense against professional wrestlers who claim they suffered brain damage while performing for the company. Omalu also is studying the brains of pro wrestlers Jonathan Rechner (Balls Mahoney) and Brian Knighton (Axl Rotten) for possible CTE, which can be diagnosed only through autopsies. Both died at age 44.
Several professional wrestlers criticized Nowinski in a June 11 article in the Globe because he and his foundation have not procured the brains of professional wrestlers for CTE research since WWE began donating $2.7 million to Nowinski’s non-profit in 2013. The foundation also added a WWE executive, Paul Levesque, to its board of directors.
The WWE’s subpoena of Omalu stems from a concussion lawsuit filed in federal court in Connecticut against the company by former performers Vito LoGrasso and Evan Singleton. A judge dismissed several elements of the complaint but allowed the wrestlers to pursue a claim that WWE fraudulently failed to warn them they could suffer head injuries on the job that could cause permanent brain damage.
Lawyers for LoGrasso and Singleton subpoenaed Nowinski to testify about his WWE experience and knowledge of head injuries in professional wrestling. Nowinski, in addition to promoting Benoit’s CTE diagnosis, has said he retired from professional wrestling because of brain injuries, though he has held WWE blameless.
A judge granted requests by Nowinski and WWE to block Nowinski’s testimony, saying the plaintiffs’ lawyers missed the deadline for serving the subpoena. The judge also ruled Nowinski’s testimony would not be relevant to the remaining fraud allegation against WWE.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.