Concussion – Dr. Bennet Omalu versus the NFL

Concussion is a movie about forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brain degeneration exposed the truth about brain damage due to repeated concussions in football players. It is based on a 2009 article published in GQ Magazine titled “Game Brain”, written by Jeanne Marie Laskas. (A PDF version of the article can be downloaded here.)

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The significance of Dr. Omalu’s work has forced the NFL to take concussion issues more seriously, amid growing scrutiny from Congress, the NFL players, and society.

In 2011, the NFL players sued the league for not properly informing them of the risk of CTE and in August 2013, the NFL reached a tentative $765 million settlement to compensate its 18,000+ retired players over concussion-related brain injuries, pay for medical exams, and underwrite research.

In 2013, ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru published a book titled “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth” which outlined the league’s efforts to deny, stall, or cover up any known links between repeated head injuries and CTE in an effort to protect its multi-billion dollar industry. Both authors spoke about their book on NPR (which can be heard below), and was subsequently turned into a 9-part Frontline documentary, which can be seen here.

After years of skepticism and denial, the NFL has acknowledged a link between concussions sustained while playing football and the degenerative brain disease CTE.

Concussion – Real Life, Reel Differences

  • The movie may allude to the fact that Dr. Omalu discovered, and termed, “chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)”. In reality, Dr. William Barr, the Director of Neuropsychology at NYU Langone Medical Center, states that it’s something scientists have known about since the 1920s, when it was discovered in boxers. Dr. Omalu’s contribution was connecting the disease to football.
  • The movie does accurately portray the NFL’s pushback against Dr. Omalu’s findings as flawed. More importantly, it has also brought forth awareness that there is a link between football and CTE and eventually, the NFL acknowledging that concussions suffered playing football were linked to long-term health effects.
  • The movie shows government officials raiding the office of Dr. Omalu’s boss, Cyril Wecht, prompting Omalu to yell, “You are attacking him to get to me”. In reality, the raid had nothing to do with Omalu’s work and in fact, occured months before Omalu published his work.
  • It’s true that Dr. Omalu discovered CTE while studying the brain of Mike Webster, a former NFL player. It’s also true that Webster had been battling depression, dementia, amnesia, and severe back pain. He did buy a Taser so he could zap his leg and knock himself unconscious in order deal with the chronic pain and get some sleep.

  • The movie shows Webster living out of his pickup truck, which was only partially accurate. According to Webster himself: “From time to time, yes, I did sleep in my car and stay in my car… I had some things to think through. I wasn’t broke. I wasn’t in danger. I was just out of gas, tired and exhausted, and that’s as far as I got that day.” The movie also implies that Webser committed suicide with the Taser, but his heart attack were more likely due to his lifestyle and drug use.
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Click here to read more fact versus fiction about the movie “Concussion”.

Where Are They Now?

Dr. Bennet Omalu currently lives in Lodi, CA (as of Sept 2017). He and his wife, Prema Mutiso, have two children, Ashly and Mark. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in February 2015. That same year, he received a WebMD Health Heroes award for his efforts to raise awareness to CTE. In 2016, Dr. Omalu received the American Medical Association’s Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor one can receive from the AMA.

Dr. Omalu is currently Volunteer Associate Clinical Professor at UC Davis (as of Sept 2017). Since the release of Concussion, Dr. Omalu has appeared as a guest lecturer at numerous events and can be booked for future engagements through The Greater Talent network. He has also authored several books on the subject of contact sports and CTE.

He, along with Dr. Julian E. Bailes and attorney Robert P. Fitzsimmons founded the Brain Injury Research Institute in 2002 to study the short and long-term impact of brain injury through chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Dr. Steven DeKosky was listed as the 2nd investigator, after Omalu, when their findings to connect brain injury with repeated blows to the head in football players was published in 2005 in the journal Neurosurgery. At that time, Dr. DeKosky was the Director of University of Pittsburg’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

In July 2015, Dr. DeKosky joined the University of Florida as a professor of neurology in the College of Medicine and interim director of Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute.

Here is a link to his current LinkedIn profile.

Dr. Elliot Pellman served almost three decades as a doctor and medical adviser, first for the New York Jets then for the NFL. Despite being a rheumatologist and someone with very little knowledge about head trauma, he was hired in 1994 by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue as chair of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. Dr. Pellman stepped down as committee chair in 2007 but remained on the committee, which consisted mostly of NFL trainers and doctors. For the better part of two decades, this group produced studies that portrayed concussions as minor injuries and led campaigns discrediting independent scientists who suggested otherwise.

On July 20, 2016, current commissioner Roger Goodell relieved Dr. Pellman of his position, proclaiming that “We intend to hire a highly-credentialed physician to serve as Chief Medical Officer and work in the league office on a full-time basis”.

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