The concussion-in-football issue is rather a simple one: Dr. Bennet Omalu was able to link chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, to repeated blows to the head that many players sustain.
Naturally, the NFL, over the tenure of two commissioners, ignored or dismissed his findings because, well, when you are a $7-billion-a-year business, nothing – including science – is going to get in the way of conducting that business.
So, yes, football has a neurological trauma problem, first brought to light after Omalu examined the body of 50-year-old former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002.
In the recently released “Concussion” – the movie that chronicles the doctor’s exasperating struggle against the NFL to connect the game’s violent collisions to CTE – two statements by Omalu, played by Will Smith, stand out:
“God did not intend for us to play football.”
“By my estimation, Mike Webster sustained more than 70,000 blows to the head.”
And when you see “Concussion,” it’s hard not walk away with two considerations:
1. You want to think twice before playing football – can one justify the joy of playing or income derived at the risk of undeniable, serious health consequences?
2. You want to think twice before even watching football – can one justify the entertainment of the game derived at the expense of these athletes’ future brain damage?
“Concussion” may not be a great film, but it is a great tutorial on the grave nature of the concussion issue.
(By the way – if I can put on my film critic’s hat for a moment – how the heck were we watching Dr. Omalu dancing in a nightclub 30 minutes in? I’d have to say it slowed the action. But, of course, because it’s Hollywood, there had to be a romance. So they stuck a love story in “Concussion” – that’s like sticking a car chase in “Citizen Kane”.)
To this day, Omalu speaks abundant common sense on the issue. Here are some recent compelling words of his from the Los Angeles Times:
“I’m not anti-football. If as an adult you know, ‘If I play football, there’s a risk I’ll suffer brain damage,’ and you still make up your mind to play, I would be one of the first to stand up and defend your right and freedom to play.
“But we need to protect children because they are still minors. If you start exposing yourself to blows to the head as a child, your risk of brain damage is greater. With smoking, alcohol, sex or driving, you need to reach the age of consent before we allow you to intentionally expose yourself to harm…why shouldn’t we do it for the risk of brain damage from repeated blows to the head?”
The NFL, for its part, first tried to silence Omalu, then eventually went into its usual public relations/feign substantive interest/even-throw-some-money-at-the-problem routine.
This includes its “concussion protocol,” in which a concussion spotter watches for blows to the head and calls down to the sideline to have a player immediately examined. Yet the Rams’ Case Keenum suffered an obvious head injury in Week 11 and never came out of the game and the Panthers’ Cam Newton absorbed a helmet-to-helmet blow in Week 13 and took three more snaps before they checked him.
And so it goes.
In Jeanne Marie Laskas’ “Concussion,” the book that the film is based on, she writes about the NFL announcing a gift of $1 million to Boston University in December 2009 to study CTE. Shortly after, the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute, a non-profit concussion-research group, threw NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a party and presented Goodell – a notorious flat-earther when it came to concussions – with its Impact Award.
They had a big cake on hand, Laskas reports, with a brain on top – made of frosting – in the shape of a football.
The moral of the story?
It always seems like this Goodell fella can have his cake and eat it, too.
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