I saw the movie “Concussion” about a month ago, and I left the theater wondering what it will mean for the future of my favorite sport. In the movie Will Smith portrayed Dr. Bennet Omalu, who made the scientific connection between concussions in the National Football League and a brain disease he named chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The disturbing disintegration and tragic death of Mike Webster, former All-Pro center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, belatedly brought the issue into public view. But even the movie came more than a dozen years after a bogus NFL committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) trashed Dr. Omalu’s findings, with members calling him everything from a quack to a showboat. The chair of the committee, a team doctor for an NFL team, had no training or education in brain science.
It was the same year that one of the NFL’s most popular players, Dallas Quarterback Troy Aikman, took a knee to the head in the January 1994 NFC Championship game. Aikman would state, after getting out of the hospital, that he had no memory of anything that happened in that game. Worse yet he still had no memory of that game years later. It wasn’t the first concussion in the NFL and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Most players concussed in a game may get a little wobbly and woozy but they would stay in the game or return after sitting out a few plays. Aikman was knocked unconscious and he was a franchise type of player, so people paid attention
Nobody would have guessed that almost two decades later, in August of 2013, the NFL would agree to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit by some 4,500 retired players who claimed serious health issues, including drug addiction, due to concussions and brain injury.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, possibly seeing millions of dollars in losses to the world’s most lucrative spectator sport, qualified the award saying it was “no admission that anything was caused by football.”
Webster, whose autopsy revealed Dr, Omalu’s groundbreaking finding, had been homeless at times in his final years, living in a car in a junkyard for some of that time, and seemingly on the edge of insanity. And yet there was an uproar when the finding of CTE in the beloved gridiron warrior seemed to place the blame on what has become America’s game, football.
The NFL community dismissed any such findings, as did the NFL’s MTBI Committee, stating categorically: “Omalu et al’s description of chronic traumatic encephalopathy is completely wrong.” Based on the professional qualifications, or lack thereof, on the committee, that would be like Donald Trump dismissing the Pope’s views of Catholic doctrine as unqualified.
But the studies and reports kept coming into the new millennium, confirming Dr, Omalu’s findings and discovering CTE in the autopsies of dozens of retired NFL players, too many of whom took their own lives. The MTBI Committee started publishing its own findings to counteract the damage from the growing number of studies and reports linking CTE with men who had been colliding with other men since high school, through college and professional play.
The NFL’s minions, bolstered by pronouncements from Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, continued to report its own findings:
— “As a result of this winnowing process, those players who ultimately play in the NFL are probably less susceptible to MTBI and prolonged post-concussion syndrome than the general population.”
—“Players who are concussed and return to the same game have fewer initial signs and symptoms than those removed from play. Return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season.”
In other words, they were arguing that (1.) football players have tougher brains and are perhaps immune to injury from concussions and (2.) it is actually less of a health risk going right back in after a concussion than being taken out of the game.
The attacks against Dr. Omalu kept coming, but legitimate brain scientists continued to prove him right in study after study, autopsy after autopsy. Suicides of retired football players— the likes of Terry Long, Andre Waters and Dave Duerson— were continuing at a faster pace in the opening decade of the 2000’s and CTE was continuing to be the culprit.
It all seemed to explode in May of 2012 with the suicide of Junior Seau, only two years into retirement at the age of 43, after a long football career and thousands of collisions. You could say the San Diego legend was the defensive equivalent of Troy Aikman. Again the autopsy found CTE.
Tagliabue’s successor as NFL Commissioner, Goodell, is informed at a congressional hearing by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) that the NFL’s position is eerily reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s denial that smoking was harmful. In recent years, Goodell has chosen a different tack, pumping money into researching concussions and traumatic brain injury, even down to the youth sports level. Legitimate and respected brain scientists have become top advisors, replacing the unqualified. Instead of a drumbeat of denial there have been promises to protect the health and welfare of players.
Among the concessions have been a concussion protocol initiated along the sidelines, as well as rule changes on the field, enforcing stiff penalties and fines on players who initiate helmet-to-helmet contact as well as targeted blows to the head. Concussion protocols are also in place on the high school level in Pennsylvania and other states, protecting the still developing brains of adolescent athletes.
That’s where it stands in the NFL. What about the players of tomorrow now in youth football? Is the risk of brain injury from football the beginning of the end for America’s sport in coming decades? We’ll check out the pros and cons next week so don’t be afraid to register an opinion.