For Love of the Game

January 24, 2020


Dr. Bennet Omalu, the physician whose research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players was featured in the 2015 movie “Concussion,” in which Will Smith portrayed Omalu as the brave David to the National Football League’s Goliath. The tagline of the movie was “Tell the Truth,” and Omalu received credit for forcing the NFL to admit that football posed a serious risk of brain injury to players.

But, according to the Washington Post, it is Omalu who has a problem with the truth.

As reporter Will Hobson writes this week, “After more than a decade of intensive research by scientists from around the globe, the state of scientific knowledge of CTE remains one of uncertainty . . . But across the brain science community, there is wide consensus on one thing: Omalu, the man considered by many the public face of CTE research, routinely exaggerates his accomplishments and dramatically overstates the known risks of CTE and contact sports, fueling misconceptions about the disease.”

The Post’s takedown of Omalu seems straightforward: An underdog whose work eventually made him a celebrity, Omalu’s initial study of the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster, who died at age 50 from what most experts now acknowledge was a brain injury caused by concussions he sustained from years of playing professional football, brought the issue of CTE to the public’s attention. (The oddest detail in the Post story is the fact that one former colleague “believes Omalu still has Webster’s brain, either in his home or in his private lab outside Sacramento.”)

But as his reputation grew, so, evidently, did Omalu’s Messiah complex. He became wealthy serving as an expert witness and motivational speaker. He refused to accept the National Institutes of Health-endorsed criteria for diagnosing CTE, insisting his own definition was superior, and he became defensive when his research findings were challenged. If his scientific colleagues are to be believed, he behaves less like a trusted researcher in the field than a gadfly.

But even though he’s prone to exaggeration, Omalu isn’t wrong about football’s punishing impact on its players. After much stonewalling, the League itself finally acknowledged the link between the sport and CTE in 2016. Books such as League of Denial offer meticulous research about the condition and marshaled indisputable facts about the NFL’s decades-long, shameful attempts to manipulate scientific evidence to claim that concussions did no harm to players.

As well, a 2016 Congressional report found that the League rescinded funding for a National Institutes of Health-sponsored study of concussions when it realized the findings would show the risks to players. As the Committee noted, “The NFL’s interactions with NIH and approach to funding the BU study fit a longstanding pattern of attempts to influence the scientific understanding of the consequences of repeated head trauma. These efforts date back to the formation of the NFL’s now-discredited MTBI Committee, which attempted to control the scientific narrative around concussions in the 1990s.”

Even some of Omalu’s harshest critics have proven the horrifying effects of football on the human brain. Forensic pathologist Dr. Ann McKee, who has plenty of negative remarks to make about Omalu in the Post’s piece, published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2017 that found 110 of the 111 brains of NFL players she examined showed evidence of CTE.

So why is the Post publishing a takedown of Omalu now?

It’s perhaps worth noting that Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, is rumored to be thinking about buying an NFL team—the Seattle Seahawks. You don’t have to be a tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist to wonder if the paper’s recent attempt to undermine the reputation of the NFL’s major CTE nemesis is just the kind of football apologetics Bezos might find appealing.

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But what is most notable (for its absence) in the Post’s story is any recognition of the growing cultural unease about football in the U.S.

There is growing concern about the risks posed by concussions and even milder head injuries sustained by youth football players. Parents of youth football players who sustained serious concussions have become activists warning about the dangers of youth football. Even though it is still the most popular high school sport, participation rates in high school tackle football are falling nationwide, and some states are considering laws banning youth tackle football altogether.

Americans aren’t usually keen on taking too close a look at the darker side of the industries that fuel their pleasures; consider how long it took before skepticism about Big Tobacco led to warning labels on cigarettes. But although Omalu clearly allowed his vanity to override his objectivity, his serious errors of judgment don’t cancel out the reality of the questions we should be asking about football.

There are plenty of former players already asking them: Former Chicago Bears player Mike Adamle, who suffers from depression, memory loss, and inexplicable rages after a career in professional football, told NBS News: “CTE is very real and it poses a threat . . . Naysayers are trying to protect the game they love, and, in fact, they’re doing just the opposite. If they really cared about the game they loved, they would listen to the doctors and the players and the families that have gone through this.”

Seattle Seahawks linebacker Joshua Perry, age 24, explicitly cited his brain health when he announced he was retiring in 2018 after suffering his sixth concussion.

Perhaps football functions as a kind cathartic release for a culture that is otherwise hyper-vigilant about preventing risk and ensuring safety. On the gridiron, episodic, controlled violence is part of the thrill of watching the game. So is the extraordinary athletic prowess and teamwork that produce moments of brilliance. Few Americans want to see football, like bear-baiting, banned as a barbaric pastime. But is the pleasure the game brings us worth the price paid by its players?

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