Dr. Bennet Omalu is, some might say, living the American Dream. A Nigerian immigrant, Omalu made a home for himself in the United States, working as a pathologist in Pittsburgh. It wasn't until he was tasked with performing the autopsy of former NFL player Mike Webster in 2002 that his life truly took a turn for the dramatic. It was this case that would inspire Omalu to discover a brain disease found in professional athletes who suffer the repeated brain trauma of a concussion, later called CTE. His research, as well as his contentious relationship with the NFL, who denied his findings for years, can now be found on the big screen in Concussion , starring Will Smith as Omalu. In the film, Omalu is seen receiving threats from the NFL, both public and private — events that were also described in Jeanne Marie Laskas' 2005 GQ article, "Game Brain" (the NFL has not publicly commented on the film's claims, and a spokesperson has not responded to Bustle's request for comment). While Omalu's original findings and medical documents play a big role in both "Game Brain" and Concussion, they're not widely known to the public, but thankfully, you can read Omalu's papers on NFL concussions to learn more about his startling discoveries.
Dr. Omalu's medical paper on Webster, titled "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player," was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Neurosurgery, in 2005. His initial paper on NFL concussions can be read in its entirety online via Laskas' official website here. In this paper, Omalu called for further study from the NFL and a heightened awareness among NFL players of the potential dangers of repeated brain injury.
"This case highlights potential long-term neurodegenerative outcomes in retired professional National Football League players subjected to repeated mild traumatic brain injury. The prevalence and pathoetiological mechanisms of these possible adverse long-term outcomes and their relation to duration of years of playing football have not been sufficiently studied. We recommend comprehensive clinical and forensic approaches to understand and further elucidate this emergent professional sport hazard."
Following the publication of Dr. Omalu's work, Neurosurgery received a letter signed by three scientists demanding that the paper be retracted. According to "Game Brain," all three of the scientists were associated with the NFL, hired as members of their Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. Neurosurgery denied their request, and, just over one year later, published Dr. Omalu's second paper, "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy In A National Football League Player: Part II." In this work, Omalu based his further research on his second detected case of CTE, discovered during the autopsy of former NFL player Terry Long. The full text of Omalu's second paper does not appear to be easily accessible online, though Laskas' official website also has a link to "Part II." (That link directs users to an article about Laskas and Omalu titled "The People v Football.")
Despite the years of research and two respected papers published on the subject, the NFL continued to deny Dr. Omalu's findings. The NFL's Dr. Ira Casson of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee dismissed the validity of Omalu's work during a press conference in 2007, saying, "The only scientifically valid evidence of chronic encephalopathy in athletes is in boxers and in some steeplechase jockeys. It's never been scientifically, validly documented in any other athletes."
Now in 2015, the cases of known CTE are well into the double digits, and the condition has been acknowledged, if reluctantly, by the NFL. However, 10 years after Omalu's initial paper on NFL concussions was published, his original call for more studies remains valid. Based on initial reactions to Concussion, many are hopeful that an increased spotlight on CTE will help bring about change in the NFL.
D'Brickashaw Ferguson, a NFL player currently playing for the New York Jets, wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated after seeing Concussion , expressing his shock, disappointment, and mixed feelings after having been exposed to the real story behind CTE. "I fear the unavoidable truth is that playing football has placed me in harm's way, and I am not yet sure of the full extent of what it might cost me," he wrote. Clearly, football players deserve to be educated on the risks they run playing football. Despite being published 10 years ago, Omalu's work remains relevant and worth a read.
Images: Columbia Pictures