By: Leah Steinke
In a study conducted by the “nation’s largest brain bank focusing on traumatic brain injury” located at Boston University (oddly enough – my exact location as I write this column), examining the brain tissue of 128 deceased football players, 101 tested positive for CTE, officially known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. That’s about 79%. To put that into perspective for you, imagine you’re watching this year’s Super Bowl between the Broncos and the Panthers. According to each team’s official roster, there should be a total of 131 men involved in this event. Imagine if 78.9% of these men were unexpectedly unable to play. They were told to pack their bags and go home. That would leave just 27 men to represent both teams on the field and on the sidelines. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, referred to from this point forward at CTE, is a degenerative brain disease reportedly caused by repeated injury to the brain resulting in the production of the protein “tau.” The tau proteins have been found to severely disrupt normal brain function. Mild cases of CTE can result in mood swings and changes of behavioral patterns, while more severe cases can result in extreme confusion, memory loss, depression, and self-harming behavior that for some has resulted in fatal action. With such frequency and severe symptoms, it’s easy to come to the question, what does this mean for the NFL?
Enter: Concussion, a 2015 movie starring Will Smith. Concussion tells the based on a true story tale of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s study’s findings regarding the recurrence of CTE in retired NFL players. Concussion serves to bring the conversation concerning the safety of specifically NFL players’, but really athletes in general, physical and mental health to the public. Concussion follows Dr. Omalu’s study from its origin all the way to its head to head battle with the NFL. As an organization, the NFL dismissed Omalu personally and professionally, giving no positive attention or recognition to his findings as valid in any way. With each new event or circumstance that pointed to the connection between football and CTE, the NFL was right there with a reason as to why no connection could or should be made. This dismissal leads to the concept with which to analyze the film and its real-world implications, the concept of denial and dismissal demonstrated by the NFL.
Questions of safety surrounding the NFL did not originate with the creation of the documentary that inspired Concussion, called League of Denial. Acknowledgement and question of safety precautions became mainstream as early as 1994, with the creation of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. This committee, though, was unable to make any kind of significant dent into the problem, as they were more concerned with other physical injuries and drug abuse among players. The commissioner during this time, Paul Tagliabue even went so far as to say “On concussions, I think is one of these pack-journalism issues, frankly… There is no increase in concussions, the number is relatively small… The problem is a journalist issue.” Flash forward to 1999, six years later, with stories like Mike Webster and Steve Young gaining media coverage. It comes out that Webster, who sued the NFL due to his physical and mental ailments, was issued a ruling in his favor – and yet, the NFL insists, as backed by MTBI studies, “brain injuries in football are relatively uncommon and minor.”
In 2002, Dr. Omalu’s examination of Mike Webster’s brain breaks into his discovery of CTE. Meanwhile, beginning in 2003 the NFL begins publishing their own research regarding concussion and safety. These “scientific papers” were published in the journal Neurosurgery, with added commentary provided by Commissioner Tagliabue. In these papers, the NFL claims that their research shows that most players suffering from concussion recover quicker than anyone realizes, and therefore they are not in danger. In 2004, tragedy strikes again with the death of Justin Strzelczyk. Again, Dr. Omalu examines the brain and finds CTE. At the same time, the MTBI goes so far as to say that “NFL players are less susceptible to brain injury.” It’s hard to believe that the MTBI could release such a vague, confusing statement and not be forced to answer more questions. My natural question is, less susceptible than what? And yet, somehow they believed those words and that claim was enough. June 2005 – Terry Long commits suicide, and again, Dr. Omalu examines the brain and finds CTE. It is after this death and finding that Dr. Omalu releases his study to the scientific and public community. Immediately, the NFL and MTBI dismiss and belittle Dr. Omalu’s study, going as far as to call it a product of “fallacious reasoning.” A member of the MTBI committee, Dr. Joseph Maroon, stated, “To go back and say that he was depressed from playing in the NFL and that led to his death 14 years later, I think is purely speculative … He could have had a head injury that wasn’t reported before football. He could have had a fight, he could have had a head injury … And that’s why I’m saying it’s so speculative.” This statement perfectly summarizes the NFL’s stance on the entire situation – it’s not “our” fault.
In the years following the initial release of Dr. Omalu’s study, the pattern of events is more of the same. More deaths, more claims of memory loss and confusion, and more denial by the NFL. Dr. Casson, named chair of MTBI in 2007, has been historically nicknamed “Dr. No” because of his adamant, aggressive, and public denial of any connection between concussions and serious negative health issues. This behavior and statements released by the NFL can classify as an epistemological filibuster, a response that “magnifies the uncertainty surrounding a scientific truth claim in order to delay the adoption of a policy that is warranted by that science.”
The adamant denial and dismissal of Dr. Omalu’s findings because they go against the agreed upon and practiced level of responsibility and liability to “employees” of one of the largest corporations in the country is disgusting. While reviewing this timeline of events, it is extremely disappointing to look back in our country’s history surrounding this topic and see that while there has been growth, it has been extremely slow and not without significant loss. Concussion generated a lot of buzz in the community of athletes and non-athletes alike, even as far as hope for an Oscar for Will Smith’s performance. The ultimate success of the movie pales in comparison to generally and widely accepted and critically acclaimed films that were released around the same time, such as Star Wars. However, there is some speculation that the lack of Oscar recognition may have come from the fear of going up against the giant that is the NFL. Concussion was able to generate the conversation necessary to bring Dr. Omalu’s story to the forefront in a way that it had not been before. Dr. Omalu should be a household name and widely recognized for the work he has down towards uncovering CTE and the risks of playing a high-contact sport for an extended period of your life. I don’t believe that these findings call for an end to football and contact sports all together, but what these findings should be credited and praised for is allowing families and players alike to understand the risks before making the decision to play.