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.)
On Sept, 24, 2002, former Pittsburgh Steelers center and Hall-of-Famer Mike Webster is found dead in his pickup truck at the age of 50. This ESPN article from 2005 talks about Webster’s degrading life the few years prior to his death. Upon Webster’s death, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist with the Allegheny County, Pennsylvania cororner’s office, performs Webster’s autopsy. The officially reported cause of Webster’s death is a heart attack, but Dr. Omalu has doubts on how a healthy and relatively young man, could have degenerated so quickly. When Dr. Omalu examines slides of Webster’s brain under a microscope, he discovers that Webster had severe brain damage and determines that the real cause for Webster’s death is the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head, a disorder he later calls chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Over the next few years, Dr. Omalu performs autopsies on other former NFL players: Justin Strzelczyk, who died in 2004 from a car crash while driving his pickup truck 100 miles per hour the wrong way down I-90 in New York, and Terry Long, who committed suicide in 2005 by drinking antifreeze. Dr. Omalu discovers that both players had symptoms very similar to Webster’s, and publishes a paper on his findings titled “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a National Football League player,” published in Neurosurgery. 2005 Jul;57(1):128-34. (The full article is available from the journal’s publishers for a fee.)
When he tries to inform the National Football League about his findings, he is dismissed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association. Omalu is pressured to stop his research and ultimately is forced to move out of Pittsburgh to avoid being deported or sent to prison on petty charges as punishment for tarnishing the NFL’s reputation. Omalu and his wife move to Lodi, California, where he takes a job with the San Joaquin County coroner’s office.
In 2011, Dave Duerson (who was the head of the NFL Players Association when Omalu initially presented his findings) commits suicide. In his suicide note, Duerson admits that Omalu was right and that his brain be given to NFL’s Brain Bank for study. Omalu is finally allowed to address his findings on concussions and CTE at an NFLPA conference. There, he states that he feels an obligation to inform NFL players of the true risks associated with playing football.
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.
- As depicted in the movie, Dr. Omalu did talk to his patients. In an interview with PBS, Omalu stated “There’s a practice I have. I’m a spiritual person. I’m a Catholic. I treat my patients, the dead patients, as live patients. I believe there’s life after death. And I talk to my patients. I talk to them, not loudly, but quietly in my heart when I look at them. Before I do an autopsy, I must have a visual contact with the face. I do that. I’ll come out of respect; I’ll look at the face.”
- While Prema Mutiso is indeed a real person, but there’s no indication that she suffered a miscarriage from the stress of being watched or followed by suspicious men associated with the NFL.
- The movie leaves out an important person, Dr. Ann McKee. Dr. McKee has been equally involved with CTE research – in fact, most of the articles published from the late 2000’s and on mentions her, because she’s the one conducting tests on the brains. The Frontline documentary, “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis“, features her more prominantly, including her unpleasant interactions with the NFL.
- It’s important to point out that the men who committed suicide and featured in the movie were at an elevated risk of suicide. Webster had a history of mental illness in his family (his mother had a nervous breakdown, his 4 siblings were bipolar), was a child abuse victim with two alcoholic parents, used drugs (including steroids and painkillers), had a gambling problem, and was divorced. Terry Long had tried to kill himself before, while he was still an active player. Like Webster, he also used steroids and was separated from his wife, among other tragedies. Andre Waters was chronically in pain throughout his entire body, was in a custody battle of 4-years for his daughter, and in a depressed state. Dave Duerson, Justin Strzelczyk, and Junior Seau were all suffering from some of the same tragedies. Dr. Omalu’s belief is that if CTE hadn’t led to each of these player’s suicide directly, it caused a lot of behavior which can lead to suicide: drug abuse and gambling, violent mood swings and depression, dementia and psychosis.
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”.