Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Webster.
Former Steelers guard Terry Long.
Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive guard Tom McHale.
Are any of these names familiar? All these men were casualties of the gridiron and suffered from a newly discovered neurological disease. The December 2015 release of the feature film Concussion from Columbia Pictures will expose the reality and severity of concussions, which have become increasingly mainstream for all athletes, especially professional football players. The article “Game Brain” on which the movie is based was published on September 14, 2009 in Gentleman’s Quarterly. Pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu made a shocking discovery in Mike Webster’s brain. The pathology slides show aggregation of tau proteins, which acted as a sludge, killing cells in all parts of the brain including areas affecting mood, emotions, and executive-decision-making. The accumulation of these red and brown glops lead to early onset dementia, memory loss, depression, addiction, and chronic pain. This disease is called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). When Dr. Omalu published his research, National Football League (NFL) called it preposterous, speculative, flawed, and ordered that the journal retract non-science published by a nobody in the field. The NFL outright denied any responsibility for scientific research that was increasingly difficult to ignore with each new player that came forward with complications.
Receiving over 25,000 hard impacts over a career, professional athletes suffer concussion after concussion, often without realizing the harm. Helmets protect the skull, but the brain floats inside, buffered from bone by only fluid and fibers. When football players are hit hard, the brain sloshes around in the skull, leading to unconsciousness or even just temporary stars. But little did they know, no matter how minor, the brain must recover from the “ding” before another can occur. Otherwise, permanent damage can arise. This permanent damage in the long run is the basis for CTE. Although the NFL is no longer trying to cover up Dr. Omalu’s research, it struggles to find a solution.
Some experts say that helmet sensors should be installed so that data can be collected and more research done. However last February, ESPN reported that NFL teams will not use helmet sensors during the 2015 season. Controversy after controversy, the NFL deemed the sensors a violation of players’ privacy and unreliable to utilize this season. They have indefinitely suspended the implementation. What does this mean for the future? Maybe only time will tell.
A little closer to home, Andrew Freeland, a Division III linebacker for Washington University in St. Louis has seen his share of concussions on the field during his 15 years of playing football. Although he has never received a concussion, Freeland has witnessed plenty of his friends and teammates suffer from one and recognizes their severity: “It’s definitely not okay to suffer from depression and increased risks of suicide 20 years later, just because you enjoyed playing [football].” Unlike in the 20th century, doctors are now well aware of the long term adverse effects of concussions. The current treatment is to mandate recovery time and also limit playing time. While treatment is not prevention, it is definitely a start.
Freeland and the NFL are in agreement: more research needs to be done. After all, research first brought awareness of CTE in the first place. For those looking to or are currently committed to research, Dr. Omalu is an inspiration, one who tirelessly pursued scientific innovation even in the face of the multibillion NFL questioning. You may be the next Dr. Omalu to discover the gold standard treatment or prevention method to CTE that plagues not only football players, but many other athletes around the world.