Sep 7 2015
The night before Christmas this December 2015, the NFL is going to be plenty anxious. Actually, it’s going to be league management, team owners, and especially NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sweating it out, waiting for a bomb to drop the next day as the highly-anticipated film, Concussions, hits theaters.
Far from the present the Goodell and the league hoped for, the film, starring Will Smith, will actually expose the epidemic of concussions in professional football – and football at all levels – gift-wrapping the disturbing issue and the NFL’s negligence for the American public.
Some are already saying that this is the most important role in Will Smith’s brilliant career, as he plays Bennet Omalu, the Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who first discovered a neurodegenerative disease in the brains of football players.
Named chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, Omalu found that repeated brain trauma caused by frequent, violent hits and tackles on the field, caused depression, dementia, and other behavioral changes over time. Doctors were already aware that boxers suffered from symptoms of brain injuries and brain damage from so many blows to the head, but there was no research, science, or even conversation about the same phenomenon occurring in football.
That is, until 2002, when Dr. Omalu studied the brain of Mike Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steeler who had suffered from severe depression and dementia before dying from a heart attack at the premature age of 50. When Omalu took samples of Webster’s brain and examined them under a microscope, he was shocked to discover tangled proteins and other tell tale signs of CTE. Thinking it may just be an anomaly or a rare case of early dementia, Omalu studied the brain of Terry Long a year later, another former Steeler who had tragically killed himself at only 45 years old by drinking antifreeze. Omalu saw the same damage to his brain.
“This stuff should not be in the brain of a 45-year-old man,” Omalu reported. “This looks more like a 90-year-old brain with advanced Alzheimer’s.”
Omalu concluded that the effects of so many jarring concussions was causing acute CTE in pro football players, leading to dementia, depression, neurological-behavioral alterations, and other brain maladies. Realizing the implications of his findings on thousands of football players and other athletes – both in the NFL, college, and all the way down to youth football, Omalu went to the National Football League with his findings. But instead of being embraced as a hero and savior of so many future lives (and brains), the league closed their door on him. As the new film, Concussions, depicts, the league systematically tried to discredit Omalu, accusing him of fraud and quackery so the concussion research wouldn’t come to light. To ensure he didn’t speak to other doctors, staff, and players to spread his warning about concussions, Omalu was even banned from any NFL meetings.
But the issue didn’t stop – or start – with Omalu, as NFL players and retired players were already feeling the devastating effects of CTE. But Omalu’s work did lead to further studies by other doctors and scientists, many of them discouraged by the NFL. The findings were more shocking than even Omalu could have anticipated, leading to more comprehensive research.
In one recent study, doctors at Boston University’s CTE Center examined the brains of 79 deceased former NFL players’ brains, many who had killed themselves or suffered acute personality shifts after their playing days. They found evidence of CTE in 76 of the 79.
To counter the growing swell of credible research – and the inevitable backlash that would surely cost them big money, the NFL formed a committee to examine the long-term effects of concussions on players’ brains and their health. But the committee was mostly just a way to spin and smear the issue, as their findings often contradicted scientific findings, anecdotal evidence, and even common sense. The NFL committee labeled concussions as “minor injuries,” and told the players that there was no problem if a concussed player returned to play in the same game. Although they were criticized, the NFL officially decreed that there were no long-term health issues resulting from concussions.
The league kept growing, the owners were more profitable than ever, players didn’t want to call attention to their injuries because it might jeopardize their careers, and the most powerful league in sport rolled on. But the results of the NFL’s cover up were catastrophic, the toll, human life of the same employees who sweated and worked and sacrificed their health to make the league profitable.
That is, until 2009, when the lid was blown off the scandal.
That year, Judge Anita B. Brody of the United States District Court in Philadelphia ruled on the side of the Players Union in a massive class action suit brought against the NFL, awarding $675 million to cover player injuries and diseases linked to head trauma and concussions sustained during their playing days.
The settlement was inevitable for the NFL, but what’s alarming is that the near-$1 billion magnitude wasn’t nearly sufficient to cover the extent of damage – nor did it address the problem of concussions in today’s game. It’s so evident that the suit, filed by 5,000 former players who alleged the league purposely hid the dangers of concussions, has only opened a Pandora’s box, not shut the lid on the issue. Judge Brody also led both sides to a supplementary settlement for an undisclosed amount, essentially an open-ended slush fund to keep the issue quiet and out of court – or the public eye – in the future.
As part of the ruling, several dozen former players with Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or C.T.E. (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) will receive monetary awards up to $5 million. The settlement also provides up to $4 million for CTE-linked deaths through July 7 of 2014, though it won’t be covered going forward over concerns that players would commit suicide in order to collect a payout.
Throughout the trial, startling expert testimony emerged. In federal court documents, the NFL admitted that they expect up to one-third of all retired players to suffer from brain trauma caused by concussions. It was a shocking change of course. For a long time, the league worked hard (and spent a lot of money) to suppress any material connection between player concussions and long term health risks. But now it’s on record, a precedent that opens the NFL up to a deluge of billions of dollars in lawsuits as former players experience brain injuries and trauma, increased prevalence of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and severe depression leading to suicides, like we saw with Junior Seau.
In former NFL players younger than 50 years old were found to have a .8% chance of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia, compared with .1% for the general population (8 times as likely). From 50 to 54 years old, 1.4% of players had those disorders compared to the same .1% of the general population, and the gap only grew more profound as NFL players went up in age.
The real tragedy is also that this could be mitigated – if not outright prevented. In fact, the concussion problem seems to be partially solvable based on a single factor – player helmets. Yet, the American Academy of Neurology released a statement that concluded many helmets used today were not properly made to protect players from concussions on hits from the side of the head. Their study found that on average, football helmets only reduced the risk of traumatic brain injury by 20% compared to not wearing a helmet at all. In fact, some of the most popular brands – used by college and high school players and protecting our children all the way down to the Pee Wee leagues, were found to be the least protective.
And yet, the NFL is still not out in front of the issue, still up to their old tricks of suppressing and minimizing the effects of concussions. In fact, they pressured Sony Pictures to edit the script of Concussions to be less sharply critical of the league’s role. This fall, 1,696 players, plus practice squad players and those called up later on, will take the field for their respective 32 teams. They’ll play the game of football the way it was meant to be played – lightning fast and viciously violent, with more concern for wins and teammates (and money) than personal safety. But the echoes of their hits will be felt long after the games are over the they hang up their cleats and the lights go out. And the NFL won’t care.
Maybe it will take a movie on Christmas Day, perhaps with Will Smith playing a doctor who should be called a hero, to bring the reality of the concussion epidemic in football to a national stage. Maybe then, with enough negative media, public awareness, and collective sympathy for players, the NFL will finally be forced to play ball.