December 25 sees the release of Will Smith's newest movie, Concussion, a film that dramatizes the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose autopsy of former NFL player Mike Webster led to the troubling discovery of the potential for severe permanent brain damage in professional football players. Omalu himself has proudly endorsed the film, citing Hollywood as a "powerful instrument for change." But it's notable that the neuropathologist's work as it is portrayed in Concussion has already caused changes in America.
Before the publication of Omalu's findings, there had been little known research conducted on the effects of repeated head injuries in football. The topic of concussions in organized sports was nowhere to be found in news headlines, and the National Football League had never acknowledged that repeated concussions could be a threat to its players' long-term health. Omalu's revelation about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) subsequently spurred a huge controversy in the NFL, leading to a major legal battle. The events portrayed in Concussion therefore not only shifted our understanding of the medical risk of recurring head injuries, but also caused many Americans to question the nationally respected institution which had so vehemently denied the existence of such risks in the first place. Here are some more details about a few of the ways in which Bennet Omalu's medical discoveries have impacted our society.
The NFL Created New Protocols
In 2009, the NFL finally acknowledged the dangers that recurring head injuries pose to professional football players. It subsequently instituted new guidelines for the diagnosis — and sufficient treatment — of concussion in NFL players.
Parents Reconsidered Letting Their Children Play Football
A 2013 survey conducted by HBO Real Sports in conjunction with the Marist College Center for Sports Communication revealed that the vast majority of Americans are now aware of the link between football-induced concussions and long-term brain injury, and a third of respondents in this particular survey said that this knowledge would hypothetically discourage them from allowing their sons to play football.
Further Research Is Being Conducted
Named after the doctor himself, the Bennet Omalu Foundation aims to "advance the Humanity of Science" by funding CTE research as well as raising awareness about the issue and providing care for those afflicted.
There Could Be Future Implications
Omalu has most recently made headlines with his proposition that only individuals over the age of 18 be allowed to play football. The doctor made the argument that we have minimum legal ages for other risk-carrying activities such as smoking and drinking, so it would be prudent to likewise require football players to be consenting adults before engaging in the sport.
The work of Bennet Omalu sparked an important conversation about football in America, and the release of Concussion ensures that this conversation will continue.
Image: Columbia Pictures