Catholic doctor discovered rampant football injuries
As background, let's state this: for several years now, we've been somewhat ardent college football fans. That's because we have two children who attend or work at high-profile football universities: the University of Florida ("Gators," where Tim Tebow played and where national championships have been won) and Florida State University (our son is a "Seminole," and during his freshman year got to see his school win a national championship).
These are big-time sports schools, with a stadium, in the case of the Gators, that seats more than 90,000. That's college football. We also followed a Gator basketball team that was number one in the nation (our daughter was a student here).
Before, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, we were fans of professional football for a bit because the Jets were contenders and the Buffalo Bills were in four Super Bowls. We know the fanaticism. We know the intensity. When a sports team loses, the city goes into mourning (productivity actually plummets the next Monday). Since the early 1990s, and until our kids went to college, we virtually dropped out of sports (watching at most the first half of the Super Bowl).
It's time, perhaps, to consider dropping out again.
That's said because last weekend (1/9/15) we did something we seldom do: went to a theatre, in this case to view a movie called Concussion that is precisely about football -- and the incredible injuries that players endure in that sport, especially brain damage.
Will we watch any of the Super Bowl this year?
Maybe. Maybe not. The movie was just too mesmerizing, and devastating -- jaw-dropping, the most powerful movie we have watched in more than a decade.
The story is a true one based on the discoveries of a devout Catholic neuro-pathologist named Dr. Bennet Omalu of Nigeria who migrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of the most intense football cities in the National Football League (NFL) -- and likewise one of the most Catholic.
It was there, performing autopsies in the medical examiner's office, that on a hunch Dr. Omalu decided to look at the brain tissue of a former Hall-of-Fame, All-Pro offensive lineman (center) named Mike Webster who died at the age of fifty after spending the last years of his life living as a homeless itinerant in train stations or his old pick-up truck as he suffered through horrifying dementia. Though normal MRI and cat scans showed no brain damage, when, after the autopsy, Dr. Omalu studied slices of Webster's brain under a microscope, he found severe anomalies as far as proteins that had been caused by blows to the head and like sludge had clogged up the cerebral circuitry of this poor athlete, who once had four Super Bowl rings (until he sold them or gave them away).
This is a man whose brain had been so severely if invisibly damaged that he spent days at a time in a fetal position, often in the parking lot of his attorney, who was trying to get the former athlete more disability money from the NFL. Webster could no longer remember basic facts -- such as whether he was married. (His wife, as it turns out, had recently divorced him; of this he had vague recollection.)
So demented was this former "superstar" athlete -- "Iron Mike," a household name in Pittsburgh (teamed with Terry Bradshaw) -- that he refused the help of former team mates who wanted to rent an apartment for him (preferring his truck) and existed on Pringle potato chips and Little Debbie pecan rolls. He was not a man who could control his thoughts or his emotions.
The proteins Dr. Omalu discovered formed the basis for the definition of a new disease that he named (and that is now officially recognized as) "chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE).
Often spending thousands of his own funds on testing, Dr. Omalu was soon to find that many others -- a total of seventeen, in the league -- had died strange, brain-related deaths, including from violent suicide at a young age. There were shootings. One drank anti-freeze. Another was an active 25-year-old wide receiver in Philadelphia. Later, household names like Jim McMahon and Tony Dorsett would report similar problems.
No helmet can prevent it, for the brain "floats" in fluids and no matter how thick the padding, a player's gray matter bumps against the skull when the head is jolted (as so frequently occurs in football).
In fact, Dr. Omalu calculated that Mike Webster's head had been subjected to a potentially-damaging "g-force" at least 25,000 times over the course of his long career, just about on every play. The NFL has been forced to set up a fund for those most severely victimized .
Can you hear that famous sound of the NFL: helmets clashing?
The youngest such documented victim (high school): seventeen.
Of special interest -- actually, galvanizing -- was the role of Dr. Omalu's Catholic faith.
At the very beginning of the movie he is depicted in a car with a Crucifix hanging from the rearview mirror and meeting his wife at church. He is a man of prayer who often asked for guidance on what killed those on whom he performed autopsies. (Webster also had a Crucifix in his truck.) It makes you wonder if indeed men like Webster were speaking from beyond the grave.
Perhaps that was how he was led to this momentous discovery. It was his Catholic faith, Dr. Omalu told an interviewer, that gave him his courage. "What is there to be afraid of?" Dr. Bennet Omalu said. "If I profess to be a Christian seeking the truth, why would I stop? The truth sets us free."
The tension between the NFL and Christianity comes across starkly. As one of the characters in the movie mentions, the NFL has become so big it even has its own day of the week -- Sunday, formerly God's day. Another surgeon in the movie who helps Dr. Omalu, Dr. Julien Bailes of Louisiana (LSU and Saints country), and more recently a physician for the Steelers, recalls how when he grew up his father taught him that "the two most important things in life were 1) God and 2) football."
At least God was number one, in that case.
In the movie the NFL is portrayed as the idol, and deity, the Force, a multi-billion-dollar corporate behemoth that fought discovery of CTE tooth and nail and could care less about players once they are no longer players (giving Webster, for example, a mere $3,000 in disability a month). One autopsy was halted after a call from the NFL. The medical examiner who backed Dr. Omalu's work was soon indicted by a local federal grand jury on 84 counts of various "infractions" (charges that were, but for one, later dismissed) while Dr. Omalu's own career was likewise threatened. Think about this next time you tune into professional football, which in addition to injuries (and not just of the head: players are commonly helped or carried off the field games with knee, shoulder, ankle, or arm injuries), fills the psyche of America -- those who watch -- with an endless stream of salacious advertisements (and at the Super Bowl, often objectionably lewd or sometimes occult-themed half-time shows).
Time to reassess our "entertainment."
Is this not modern-day gladiators, and in a far bigger "coliseum"?
Truth. We need a lot more truth about our modern culture.
Take a look at wrestling, boxing, and hockey, while you're at it. Have you seen what happened to Mohammed Ali? (Some even think O. J. Simpson may have had such damage, for it is well known to provoke rage and violence as well as irrationality.)
In September 2015, researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University announced that they had identified CTE at least in trace amounts in 96 percent of NFL players that had allowed their brains to be donated for examination after death, because they suspected damaged, and in 79 percent of all football players (read: high school and college). At the University of North Carolina one professor who put shock detectors in the helmets of the school's athletes discovered in one case that a player endured two shots to the head of 80 g's and 98 g's in just a morning of practice. To put this in perspective: if you drove a car at 25 miles per hour into a wall and your face hit the windshield, the g-force would be about 100. (Later in the day, this same player endured another substantial jolt to the same area of his brain.)
The movie concludes with the warning that 28 percent of pro players have significant brain trauma.
As a reviewer noted, "CTE is the reason once proud and charismatic Webster spent his final days alone and in pain, hopped up on a cocktail of pain medications and sleeping in a truck with broken windows covered by garbage bags. CTE is the reason the once fun-loving and thoughtful Justin Strzelczyk [another Steeler offensive lineman] sped up Interstate 79 in New York one afternoon, stopped at a gas station to offer crucifixes and cash to strangers, and then raced through oncoming traffic, dodging cars until he hit a tanker going ninety miles per hour."
In college, I have heard coaches say things like, "He'll be okay; it's only a concussion." Players often are knocked out cold but revived at the sidelines with smelling salts or drugs -- and sent back in. Often, the impact of a "hit" causes a player to lose control of the bowels or see triple for the rest of the game.
How many times have you seen players smacked so hard as to whiplash backwards, or land on the top of the head?
It's really amazing, and daunting, to contemplate. And contemplate we must, even if we don't want to, even if we don't want to admit it. The truth sets us free. True, some of the symptoms Webster and others suffer could be aggravated by rampant use of steroids or drugs like Ritalin, and Webster had mental illness in his family. But just about anyone who has played football long enough has a shoulder or knee or hip replacement, never mind the brain. The NFL recently awarded damages to hundreds of former players (amounting to $750 million)!
It gets hard to watch. We're doing this to our kids -- and calling it the national past-time?
Can something change to make it palatable again? At least let these fellows block from a standing position (as opposed to crouched down there head to crashing, helmeted head).
The day after viewing this movie, we didn't bother turning on any of the playoff games. It was just too fresh in our own minds. It was just too much. The Super Bowl? Maybe the first half, this year. Maybe. In Dr. Omalu's opinion, "God did not intend for man to play football."
He certainly could not condone a past-time -- a spectacle in entertainment -- that regularly and severely damages human beings.
-- Michael H. Brown