John Steigerwald: It might be time to show skepticism about CTE research

January 26, 2020

Trib Live John Steigerwald

Maybe Merril Hoge was right.Hoge, a running back who played eight seasons in the NFL — seven with the Steelers and one with the Bears — retired at 29 because of multiple concussions.
His book, “Brainwashed: The Bad Science Behind CTE and the Plot to Destroy Football,” co-authored with Dr. Peter Cummings, an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine, came out in 2018 to lots of bad reviews.
CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), with lots of help from a movie “Concussion” starring Will Smith, had been just about universally accepted as an injury caused by repeated blows to the head in contact sports, especially football.
Hoge was ridiculed by some on Pittsburgh talk radio and in other media around the country for having the nerve to question the connection between football and CTE.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Smith in the movie, made his discoveries while working in the Allegheny County Coroner’s office.
Since then, major changes have been made at all levels of football. Live hitting in practices has been reduced greatly and, in some cases, eliminated.
Parents everywhere were ruling out football for their children.
Omalu was/is a hero approaching Jonas Salk territory.
Here’s what USA Today columnist Christine Brennan wrote in October 2018: “If this is a battle between these co-authors and the nation’s renowned experts, it’s time to invoke the mercy rule.”
Brennan quoted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says CTE is “believed to be caused in part by exposure to repetitive head impacts … the greatest risk factor for CTE is the number of years of exposure to repeated head or brain injuries.”
Brennan ripped Hoge and Cummings for trying to “debunk the groundbreaking work of Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University.”
Maybe it’s Hoge who broke new ground by refusing to accept the hysteria.
Will Hobson of The Washington Post wrote Thursday: “In the brain science community there is wide consensus on one thing: (Dr. Bennet) 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, according to interviews with more than 50 experts in neurodegenerative disease and brain injuries.”
Did you get that?
Those experts are basically saying Omalu falsely created the hysteria that has been threatening the existence of football.
Hobson also reviewed more than 100 papers from peer-reviewed medical journals and says “the alarming statistics he recites about contact sports are distorted, according to the authors of the studies that produced those figures.”
Remember Dr. Ann McKee, whose work Christine Brennan said Hoge foolishly tried to debunk?
She’s not buying what Olamu has been selling, either.
She says his definition for CTE is incredibly broad and describes characteristics that can be found in normal healthy brains.
She told Hobson, “His criteria don’t make sense to me. I don’t know what he’s doing.”
McKee confirmed to Hobson an open secret in the CTE expert community is Omalu’s paper on former Steeler Mike Webster, who was the first football player discovered to have CTE, “does not depict or describe the disease as the medical science community defines it.”
There is no “Concussion” movie without Mike Webster.
Hobson writes that McKee and other experts believe Webster had CTE, but Omalu’s paper shows images that are not CTE and could have come from the brain of a healthy 50-year-old man.
McKee says, “This is the problem. People lump me with him, and they lump my work with him and my work is nothing like his.”
Omalu, who makes a lot of money traveling around the country scaring people about CTE, turned down all of Hobson’s requests for an interview and says God will punish the scientists who disagree with him.
If you hadn’t heard about Hobson’s column by now, you should have. This is a huge story.
There are thousands of people who write about football descending upon Miami for the Super Bowl as you’re reading this.
They should be rethinking what they’ve come to believe about the curse of CTE and how it might have affected their coverage of the NFL.
How many stories have been written about CTE being the cause of Aaron Hernandez’ violent behavior?
There are plenty of people in the Pittsburgh media who have blamed Antonio Brown’s idiotic and possibly criminal behavior on CTE and a hit that he took from the Bengals’ Vontaze Burfict in a playoff game.
It might be time for everybody to calm down and show a little skepticism about what we’ve been hearing about the long-term effects of playing football for the last 10 or 12 years.
It might also be time for lots of people to apologize to Merril Hoge.

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