The Bright Spotlight on Pro Football Concussions

Dr. Omalu subsequently was called in to consult on several retired football players' autopsies in which he identified CTE.

I'm looking forward to seeing Will Smith's new movie, "Concussion," in December.

Have you ever experienced one? I have, at age 9 or 10. I was riding my bike down our street after a summer shower when my wheels hit a wet patch of sand and slipped sideways. My head hit the pavement. I don't remember getting to the hospital, thanks to my parents, but I came to my senses there with them standing by me. And I remember asking them repeatedly what day it was. Later, they told me that confirmed I had suffered a concussion: Asking over and over, I couldn't remember the answer.

I recovered and have been all but injury-free throughout my life, I'm blessed to say. I played on basketball, soccer, baseball, and tennis teams during my teenage years but played no football except for Saturday sandlot games. And that may have made all the difference.

Smith portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist working for the medical examiner in Pittsburgh at the time the movie covers. Omalu identified a brain disease he named chronic traumatic encephalopathy by examining the brain of Mike Webster, a Pro Football Hall of Fame center who died at age 50 in September 2002. Omalu subsequently was called in to consult on several retired football players' autopsies in which he identified CTE, which he described as "expedited aging of the brain with degeneration of the brain cells" in a 2013 interview with PBS FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk.

The movie recounts Omalu's great difficulty getting the NFL to acknowledge his findings. By now the league has offered a settlement that would cover all retired players with severe neurological disorders, but some 200 players opted out in order to preserve their ability to continue battling the league. The NFL, GE, and Under Armour launched a Head Health Initiative two years ago to improve diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury, and in August 2015 the league announced a partnership with the Canadian Football League to implement additional concussion tests during CFL practices and games this season. That NFL announcement said about 27 medical staffers are on duty at its games, "including an unaffiliated neurological consultant (UNC), who collaborates with team physicians to make in-game neurological assessments and who must independently approve a player returning to play following a suspected head injury."

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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