PM360 2020 Trailblazer Awards Imagination Award Winner Chris Nowinski

Chris Nowinski, PhD, Co-Founder, CEO, Concussion Legacy Foundation

The PM360 Imagination Award was established to honor radical thinkers and Chris Nowinski, PhD definitely qualifies. After all, it certainly requires radical thinking to try and upend our society’s cultural entrenchment of football and convince people to put aside their strongly held love of kids’ sports and listen to the facts.

As both a former college football player and professional wrestler, Chris shares the passion many of us share for sports. Unfortunately, he also understands the negative impact they can have firsthand. He experienced over 10,000 hits to the head, and a serious concussion ended his career and challenged his mental health. Chris knew he had to turn his life lessons into a way to help others.

He co-founded the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF) to raise awareness and fight for changes to protect people from concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a debilitating brain disease caused by head impacts. To advance the science, Chris went back to school to get a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience and co-founded the CTE Center at Boston University. Last year he co-authored a study led by Dr. Ann McKee that discovered a strong correlation between years of repeated hits to the head in football—even hits that didn’t result in concussion—and the odds of developing CTE. Incredibly, Chris realized the correlation between years of playing football and CTE was even stronger than the established correlation between years of smoking and developing lung cancer.

A Message That Leads to Change

Chris was determined to capture the public’s attention to understand the data and he believed the smoking analogy could elicit the emotional reaction needed to change behavior. He drew upon his network of athletes, HCPs, parents, coaches, and passionate supporters to not only find an advertising agency willing to help pro bono, but also financial donors to support the production of a campaign.

The resulting “Tackle Can Wait” campaign became a juggernaut with its provocative imagery showing a mother encouraging her young son—wearing his football uniform—to smoke a cigarette. Covered extensively in print, TV, online, and news media, the campaign was featured on every major network and newspaper and spawned countless supportive discussions on shows like The Doctors, TODAY, and Fox News as well as on many parenting blogs.

Most important is the real, tangible difference this campaign is making in the world. Currently, several state legislatures are debating bills that would act on the study’s findings to regulate the age at which kids can first play tackle football to reduce their risk of developing CTE. And the CLF has gained attention, respect, and donors due to these efforts. All of which leads to more efforts to prevent brain trauma in the future and improve the lives of those already suffering.

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