Sports Safety Advocacy

Dr. Bennet Omalu did not plan to be a sports safety advocate. How and why that happened animates his memoir, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side: My Alarming Discovery about the Danger of Contact Sports (Zondervan, 2017).

Former chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, Calif., and a clinical professor at the UC Davis School of Medicine, Omalu’s life today contrasts sharply with being a malnourished infant during Nigeria’s Civil War. That start did not stop him. With support from his mother and father, he entered medical school at 16.

In 1994, Omalu arrived in the US. Eventually, he became a forensic pathologist. So far, so good describes his life. Then Omalu meets the National Football League, America’s most profitable and popular sport.

In 2002, when Omalu was working in the Allegheny County (Pa.) medical examiner’s office, he performed an autopsy of “Iron” Mike Webster, a former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who died at age 50. Omalu, like Webster, battled depression. However, Webster’s depression was part of a total health crash that baffled family and friends.

They had no clue what happened to the man who anchored the Steelers’ offensive line to multiple Super Bowl championships in the 1980s. Omalu, who calls Webster “Mike,” sets the record straight in an autopsy that shows a trauma to tau protein, which supports and transports nutrients to and from brain cells and fiber.

Opponents’ repeated head strikes had fractured the skeleton of Webster’s brain cells and fiber, Omalu surmised, during a months-long investigation. In it, he uncovered an incurable brain condition, chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, in Webster. Later, Omalu published a peer-reviewed paper on Webster’s case in Neurosurgery, the first of many on the topic.

Omalu’s memoir details in part how and why the NFL fought his findings on CTE’s causes and effects. For example, the NFL accused Omalu of falsifying his research. He weathered that storm due to his faith and parents’ mentoring. Omalu is fond of quoting Scriptures to shed light on how he dealt with the NFL’s attacks. That might discourage some readers.

In 2005, not long after Webster’s demise, his teammate Terry Long, a guard, died after drinking a gallon of antifreeze. In an autopsy, Omalu found CTE in Long’s brain, and published a paper, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player: Part II,” Neurosurgery 59.5 (November 2006).

Meanwhile, the NFL maintained there was no link between pro football and CTE in players. But that’s not what a major report in the Journal of American Medical Association, released July 25, 2017, concludes.

“In a convenience sample of 202 deceased players of American football from a brain donation program, CTE was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 players across all levels of play (87%), including 110 of 111 former National Football League players (99%),” according to JAMA. CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain that results from traumatic injuries such as concussions, was present in younger football players, too: “3 of 14 high school (21 percent), [and] 48 of 53 college (91%)” athletes.

As a clinician, Omalu has pursued an “ask the workers” method of Dr. Bernardino Ramazzini, the founder of modern occupational medicine. He advises doctors to ask patients: “What is your occupation?” While athletes, youth through pros, do not share equally as wage earners, they are working in games and practices. Omalu partly examines what they did to learn what ailed them.

Will Smith played Omalu in the 2015 film Concussion. Currently, Omalu is on a mission to protect the brains of youth, future generations, from irreversible injuries such as CTE, through education and prevention. In this way, he seeks to protect young athletes from high-impact and high-contact sports—boxing, football, ice hockey, mixed martial arts, wrestling and rugby—that put their developing brains at-risk.

Allowing children “to engage in these contact sports,” Omalu writes, exposes, “him or her to the risk of permanent brain damage, which can manifest as CTE.” This sheet of music clashes with the sports status quo. I think that readers will find his case for reducing such athletic risk sensible.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com

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