I titled an earlier post, “Watching Football, Feeling Guilty.” After having viewed the movie, “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, I think that I will feel too guilty if I ever viewed football again. “Concussion” is an outstanding move. Will Smith is a fine actor, and the part of Dr. Bennet Heakandu Omalu allows him to show his full talent. Dr, Omalu is an immigrant from Nigeria, a brilliant doctor, and an extremely conscientious coroner. He performed an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002. Although Webster’s brain looked normal after the typical autopsy, Webster had been living out of his truck, trying to paste lost teeth back into his gums, and has been shocking himself with a taser. He had been struggling for years with cognitive and intellectual impairment, dentition, mood disorders, depression, drug abuse, and suicide attempts, yet his autopsy did not indicate any problems with his brain. Dr Omalu needed to use not only his initiative, but also his own money to conduct further research. He conducted detailed tissue analysis and found the evidence of the cause of Webster’s dementia. He did further research into likely causes. In 2005 together with colleagues in the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh. his finding were published in the journal “Neurosurgery” in an article titled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” The NFL quickly started work to impugn both his integrity and his research. Dr. Omalu persevered and published a second “Neurosurgery” paper based on his findings in the brain of former NFL player Terry Long, who suffered from depression and committed surgery in 2005. Although long died at 45 he had a brain more characteristic of a 90 year old with advanced Alzheimer’s.
Evidence continued to accumulate. After seven years refusing to recognize the legitimacy of Dr. Omalu’s research, the NFL finally acknowledged the link between concussions sustained in football and CTE. In 2012 some four thousand NFL players “joined civil lawsuits against the league, seeking damages over the League’s failure to protect players from concussions, according to Judy Battista of the New York Times.”
In 2015 a final settlement was reached between players in the NFL in the case adjudicated by Judge Brody. The NFL will make payments for $75 million for “baseline medical exams” for retired players, $10 million dollars for research and education, as well an uncapped amount for retirees “who can demonstrate that they suffer from one of the several brain conditions covered by the agreement,” will total payments expected to exceed $1 billion dollars over 65 years.
So the NFL regards the problem as a cost of doing business. The have established a concussion protocol, whereby players who have suffered a concussion are allowed back into the game. From games I have watched and read about, it seems that this protocol is administered inconsistently. It is also believed to be the case that concussions are not a necessary condition for CTE. Consistent pounding of the brain can have deleterious effects on the brain.
I read a review of the movie in Deadpan, “How Sony Changed Concussion to Make the NFL (Or Their Lawyers) Happy. Although I do not deny that the NFL was able to negotiate changes in the script, having viewed the movie I cannot believe that either the NFL or its lawyers happy. The NFL comes across as a ruthless entity, oblivious to the damages being wreaked on its participants, interested only in money, and having no regard for the truth. The agreements they eventually did agree to were forced upon them by the strength of the evidence.
Earlier diagnostic techniques, and treatments are being researched. Perhaps changes in equipment or the rules of the game can mitigate the problem. I am particularly interested in the effects this movie will have on the public. It is well done and highly moving. How many people, if any, will be like me and swear off the sport as a viewer. There are already some professional players who are retiring early and an unknown number who might be reconsidering pursuing football as a sport. Of particular interest are parents, who might not regard playing football as a risk their children should undertaken. Young brains are especially vulnerable.
We seem to forget the purpose of athletics, namely as activities to make us healthier. It’s perverse when the opposite results. This goes beyond football. I’ve known runners who have injured themselves who continue to run knowing that they are putting their well being at risk. It is easy to find many such examples.
Dr. Omalu continues his research. He has discovered CTE in the brains of war veterans. Oman has written a paper linking Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to the CTE spectrum of diseases.
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