Doctor: NFL changes won't stop brain damage

PALM BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Want a sure bet for Sunday's Super Bowl 50?

A player almost assuredly will be laid out by an opponent and taken to the locker room to be evaluated under the NFL's concussion protocol.

But the firebrand forensic pathologist and subject of the movie Concussion told The Palm Beach Post that it won't stop players from developing the debilitating neurological disorder that he discovered: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.

"The concussion protocol, forensically speaking, is of no consequence," Dr. Bennet Omalu said. "The only thing the concussion protocol will avoid is catastrophic injury and death, because if you suffer a concussion, you go back and you suffer a second concussion, you can drop dead."

Omalu will speak at the Jupiter campus of Florida Atlantic University on Feb. 16, an event that has already sold out. The doctor said he is on a mission to enlighten the public about CTE, especially parents considering allowing their children to play full-contact football. It apparently is working. The Post spoke to parents last month who say they wouldn't allow their children to play football in light of Omalu's discovery.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said this week that if he had a son, he would encourage him to play football, saying there is risk in everything in life.

Omalu said he wants the public to understand the risk and to know that CTE is not limited to football. It can occur in other contact sports and from abuse.

"As a scientist and a physician, I want society to begin to think about the public health, public safety issue and public policy issues surrounding exposure of the human brain to repeated blunt force trauma in whatever human activity, including child abuse and domestic violence," Omalu said.

"Parents who smack their children on the top of the head should stop doing that."

Omalu, a native of Nigeria, is portrayed by actor Will Smith in the movie with aplomb. Smith captures Omalu's passion on getting the word out on CTE and his outrage at the discrimination he faced from the NFL, the government and the scientific community. The former Fresh Prince even captures Omalu's deep hearty laugh and his deep religious conviction that was readily apparent in last week's interview as the doctor spoke about the "holiness of truth."

"God did not create us to engage in activity that would expose our heads to repeated blunt force trauma. We do not have the anatomical wherewithal," Omalu said. "I want to sow a seed that will instigate a national discourse that will bring about new thought."

The movie portrays Omalu as a reluctant messenger, a neuropathologist who at times wishes he never autopsied former Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster — who lived his last days homeless — and discovered his brain replete with the same found in Alzheimer's patients. Omalu yearns for the peaceful life he once experienced, but he doesn't regret the film.

"I encourage everybody to go see that movie. That movie is a public health tool," Omalu said in a 35-minute phone interview Thursday. "That movie was way ahead of what I expected it to be. It is a very powerful movie. Will Smith didn't want to do this movie but when he saw the public health significance of it, he chose to do it."

Omalu touched on the racism that exists in Hollywood, leaving minorities out of the Academy Awards, and on the football field.

Omalu noted black men represent about 6 percent of the population but nearly 70 percent of the football players putting their brains at risk to entertain the American public. And not all are paid millions to do so. "Football steals away your intelligence from you," noting this is why ex-football players struggle at times to find employment after leaving the sport.

Omalu comes to Florida to speak as the CTE issue evolves weekly. It dominates sports talk shows. Last month, news emerged that former New York Giants player Tyler Sash had a severe case of CTE when he died in 2015 of a drug overdose. At 27, he is the youngest NFL player to be diagnosed postmortem with CTE.

Omalu then made news when he said he would bet his medical license that O.J. Simpson suffers from the condition. And last week, another name was added to the list: the late NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Ken Stabler. Half of Stabler's actual brain appeared on the New York Times' website with details on how CTE had changed its physiology.

Omalu says at first that he doesn't want to talk about Simpson after the media seized on his comment, but then says there is plenty of evidence that CTE in some players could lead to criminal behavior.

"Criminality, violent tendencies, drug abuse, chronic alcoholism, paranoid behavior, impairment of cognitive functions … They began to lose their learned behavior," Omalu said.

"I'm not justifying O.J.'s behavior," Omalu said "He belongs to a high-risk group. He played football in college, in high school and professionally. If you get to the professional level, I believe there is a 100 percent chance you have brain damage."

Since Omalu's discovery, scores of football players have donated their brains postmortem, contributing to growing evidence that sustained trauma to the head by playing American's most beloved game leads to CTE.

Even the modern-day football helmet is being examined. But it is seen as a possible cause of head trauma, not protection.

Dr. Frank Conidi, director of the Florida Center for Headache and Sports Neurology in Palm Beach Gardens, has examined numerous helmets, finding the 1930s leatherhead helmet safer than about six products on the market.

He said the NFL, out of legal concerns, won't allow researchers to do evidence-based studies that allow companies to test products to evaluate players for concussions. The league settled with retired players in a $765 million out-of-court settlement already.

But Conidi, whose clinics have branches in Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale, said the players themselves are in denial.

"I deal with these guys constantly. They don't want anything that could affect a contract," he said. "Now we are seeing these guys who are retired and the whole game changes and then want to know everything."

Conidi said he attended the fourth International Conscensus Conference on Concussion in Sport in Zurich in 2012 that set the concussion protocol the NFL now uses, employing rest and then slowly allowing the player to become more active in training and non-contact football drills. The protocol will not allow a player to return to the game unless he is examined by an independent neurological consultant.

But Conidi says the protocol is evolving.

"In my opinion, especially with children, we are probably returning them too quickly," he said, adding that research his center is doing has found that "players' brain wave activity is not normalized in 30 days."

In the past, CTE could only truly be diagnosed postmortem. Conidi's center is trying to change that in what could-be a ground-breaking study of up to 500 living retired players using advanced MRI techniques. So far, 100 players have been examined and 42 percent of them had evidence of traumatic brain injury.

"This is the largest study showing objective evidence of traumatic brain injury in retired NFL players to date," he said. "It may provide a direct link to CTE."

Conidi said he is not seeing behavioral aberrations that have been reported in some of CTE's more celebrated cases, saying it can't be ruled out that mental illness, not brain trauma, could play a part in those cases. "We are not seeing a lot of behavioral stuff. We are seeing dementia. There is something going on," he said.

And that is what Omalu wants the public to understand, that subjecting the brain to repeated trauma through football and other contact sports is taking a toll.

The blood lust, however, remains.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says professional football has "become soft," exalting the violence of the sports and the big hits. Omalu delivers a hearty laugh when asked about Trump's comment.

"Can you find out for me if Trump's children played football? This is so-called 'gladitorial spirit,' " Omalu said. "They don't care if people damage themselves or kill themselves, but when it comes to them, they don't want to do it."

©2016 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
Visit The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.) at www.palmbeachpost.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Join the conversation and share your voice.

Show Comments