American Football and Concussions

What are we supposed to do Now?

To preface, I think football is a great game. Strategy, heroism, victory, sweat, stealth, fierceness, pride — all the things this country was formed on, by the way.

But the new Will Smith movie, Concussion, shows a darker side to America’s favorite sport — and not just to the sport itself, but to the NFL that runs it.

Dr. Omalu, a Nigerian-born forensic neuropathologist discovered that “repetitive head trauma chokes the brain” ultimately causing CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). The Concussion Legacy Foundation explains CTE as

a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes…with a history of repetitive brain trauma….Possible symptoms include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually progressive dementia.
CTE “at a glance” (image from

In 2005, Dr. Omalu published his first diagnosis of CTE in American football player, former Pittsburgh Steeler, Mike Webster. The diagnosis has come as a relief to families of players who have watched their loved ones deteriorate similarly. But to the NFL, this published diagnosis has come as a thorn to every Rose Bowl since then.

In Concussion, Dr. Omalu’s colleague, Dr. Cyril Wecht, warns him:

“You’re going to war with a coporation that OWNS a day of the week!”

Omalu had no idea what he was getting himself into. In a recent interview with NPR in 2015, Omalu explained that he shared his findings with the NFL in the hopes that they might see his research and be motivated to find a way to “enhance the lives and safety and health of the players.”

Perhaps Omalu did not ACTUALLY expect a multi-billion-dollar, internationally-shared corporation like the NFL to simply drop everything to read (let alone take the time to respond to) the research of a lone doctor, foreign-born, who studied dead people for a living.

Dr. Omalu discovered CTE/image from

But the NFL did see his research. And they did drop everything to draft and send an artful response to this obscure doctor…though it was not the response Omalu was expecting:

“They sent a very, very strong letter accusing me of fraud. Accusing me of practicing something that was not science, insinuating I was a voodoo doctor. Calling me all types of names.” [interview with “All Things Considered, NPR, December 27, 2015]

Omalu had a decision to make, and he chose to continue to publish his reasearch in the face of terrible opposition.

And now, a decade later, more prestigious news stations (and Columbia Pictures) are picking up on the story and circulating it, thinking that if the NFL will do nothing, perhaps the public might be motivated to.

But What Are We Supposed to Do Now?

So….what now? Do we just shut down the NFL? Quit football altogether? Take away a vehicle that brings the masses together and puts them on the same team, despite disparaging differences in religion, race, politics, and income?

You might as well remove a person’s throbbing heart with a spoon.

But if we do nothing, then wouldn’t we be like the Romans of old, who watched death for sport and paid handsomely to do so?

Are We Like the Ancient Romans?

No one wants to believe that we might actually line up with a people so hedonistic, they induced vomiting to make room for excess food at dinner parties and they paid money to watch people kill each other in an arena.

In North America today, we are more civilized. More humane.

image from

We value each human life as our own. We have socialized medicine, free education, don’t-beat-your-kid laws, don’t-abuse-the-elderly laws, buckle-your-child-in-a-carseat laws, and anti bullying laws. We crack down on human trafficking, we can hardly stomach the thought of slavery (despite how relatively recent it was in our own country’s history), we send people to prison for manslaughter, and we make damn sure to register our sex offenders.

We’re altogether pretty civilized.

Football is just a sport. People get hurt in sports. Move out of the way. You’re standing in front of the T.V.

Is It Ridiculous to Interfere?

So…what now? Do we enact laws that require football gear to be more protective and cumbersome than it already is? Do we require contact sports like hockey, football, and rugby to penalize even more types of contact than are already penalized?

Maybe this is one of those things we just leave alone. We could take an “inform the patient” approach to it and let the athletes decide for themselves whether they would like to take the risk.

High school football player, John Castello, did just that in February 2016. Read the story below.

We like to think of ourselves as civilized and humanitarian. And we are! Almost everyone here would prevent a mugging, offer a few bucks to a hungry stranger, help save a drowning child, wrap a blanket around a neighbor whose house burned down, or buy a gift for Toys for Tots.

People are kind. People want to help. People don’t like to watch others in pain. And we certainly don’t pay money to watch people severely injure each other….

Do we?

According to Dr. Bennet Omalu, we do.

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