CTE & Football: The Line In the Sand
It’s Thursday, September 6th, 2036. NFL Opening night. A night where thousands flock to their local bars, draft their “genius” fantasy football lineups and watch the defending Super Bowl champs on their home turf.
Only this year there is no game to watch, in fact, the National Football League no longer exists.
Basking in the dreary reality of a fall without football, you contemplate what went wrong. Sports talk shows, along with millions of NFL fans, swiftly point their fingers. All of which are directed towards who else but ex-NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell. They reference the debacles of Bountygate and Deflategate, along with his enigmatic rulings on a multitude of domestic violence and drug abuse cases. However, everyone agrees upon what really dealt the finishing blow to the National Football League.
Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu, a forensic pathologist, examined the brains of eight former NFL players in 2002. One of the players’ brains he observed was Mike Webster’s, a legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Known for his tenacious play, “Iron Mike” won four Super Bowls in his 16-year career, earning himself a place in the pro football Hall of Fame. Despite his exceptional playing career, the life Webster lived after football was appalling.
Suffering from cognitive impairment, mood disorders, depression, and drug abuse, Mike Webster died just 12-years after he stepped off the football field of a heart attack. Doctor Omalu’s findings left reason to believe that Webster’s symptoms after football were not any coincidence. Subsequently, after conducting his own tissue analyses of the Hall of Famer’s brain, Omalu concluded that Webster had developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from repeated blows to the skull.
The exorbitant amount of tau protein built up in his brain helped to explain the troubles Webster suffered. Omalu noticed tau protein had stark similarities to beta-amyloid protein, which contributes to Alzheimer's disease. Realizing his findings were unprecedented and held such drastic implications for the NFL, Omalu sought assistance.
Partnering with the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh and concussion researcher Julian Bailes, Omalu published his discoveries. In 2005, Omalu and his team published "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” Omalu was hopeful that the information himself and colleagues found could help NFL doctors combat the problem.
The NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee received Omalu’s paper and immediately rejected the claims in May of 2006. Spokespeople for the MTBI referred to the explanation of CTE as “completely wrong” and “purely speculative.”
Despite the incredulous attitude league officials had towards CTE, Omalu made several other discoveries. Ex-Steeler lineman Terry Long committed suicide in 2005 at just 45-years-old. Omalu conducted the same study on Long’s brain as he did on Webster’s. Only this time, he found that the tau protein found in Long’s brain compared to that of a 90-year-old man with Alzheimer’s. Omalu had additionally discovered two more cases of the disease. NFL Retirees Justin Strzelczyk (dead at 36 in 2004), Andre Waters (dead at 44 in 2006) both had CTE. Strzelczyk and Waters, like Webster and Long, also suffered from depression that ultimately led them to their deaths.
Collaborating with his team once again, they published a second CTE paper in November of 2006. It was not until the summer of 2007 that they heard back from the league. However, they finally invited Julian Bailes to present the data found about CTE at a concussion summit the league was hosting. Not Doctor Omalu.
Upset by Omalu not being there, Doctor Bailes would not miss the golden opportunity to present the research from Webster’s and Long’s brains directly to Roger Goodell.
Given the private setting of the conference, there is no detailed account of the exchange with the commissioner. However, after the summit concluded Julian Bailes told the media that their findings were “dismissed.”
In an alternate press conference, Doctor Ira Casson, neurosurgeon and head chairman of the NFL’s MTBI spoke about Omalu and Bailes’ research, “In my opinion, the only scientifically valid evidence of a chronic encephalopathy in athletes is in boxers and in some steeplechase jockeys. It’s never been scientifically, validly documented in any other athletes.”
The denial of the league did not phase Omalu and Bailes.
Tom McHale, an offensive lineman for seven years and a graduate of Cornell, died in 2008 of a cocaine and oxycodone overdose. To no surprise of Omalu, he found McHale also had CTE. After meeting Chris Nowinski, a former WWE wrestler who understood the implications of head trauma personally, they developed a plan. Nowinski had founded the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) for concussion trauma.
Omalu suggested that himself, Bailes, and Nowinski continue to work quietly. They knew the NFL was not budging on accepting their research, but Nowinski decided to go his own way with the McHale findings despite this. Nowinski and SLI partnered with the Boston University School of Medicine and created the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
On CNN during the week of the Super Bowl in 2009, the McHale diagnosis was released, enabling the masses to see the ramifications of playing in the NFL. Although Omalu was not the first one to break the news, his legacy was solidified when Will Smith portrayed him in Concussion (2015).
Today, the NFL has paid the price for their negligence monetarily and more importantly, within the standing of their game. Adolescents putting on the helmet and pads are either being stopped by their mothers or suffering concussions. While the league has taken measures to limit helmet-to-helmet contact, it has yet to show an effective translation in youth football or the NFL.
The CDC reports that concussions have doubled in the past decade in athletics. From the 2014 NFL season to 2015, the concussion rate rose by 58% (271 in 2015). At the High School level, 47% of concussions across all sports occur in football, 33% of which happen at practice. This leaves High School football players at three times greater risk of getting concussed compared to any other sport.
Roger Goodell and the NFL’s initial repudiation regarding CTE has left them behind the eight ball. While there is no quantifiable way of proving that more teenagers will go to another sport and render the NFL nonexistent, it is most certainly a possibility. Every kid that makes the commitment to play football must not only understand the brutal nature of the game, but understand the legitimate risk they run in losing their mind, family, and life.
To quote Doctor Bennet Omalu, “Trust in the great American ingenuity. We can derive more intelligent, more brain-friendly ways we can play football.”