For as long as I can remember, I have been a Packer fan. I mean, growing up in Wisconsin with America’s team means that we take our football pretty seriously after all. Football is America’s game as noted by this past Sunday’s events.
A few months ago, my husband and I finally watched the movie Concussion, which stars Will Smith. I enjoy most of Will Smith’s movies (I did grow up in the 90’s after all), but what intrigued me more about this story was the medical side of it. I really enjoy diving deep into a good medial mystery, be it a movie or Untold Stories of the ER.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, here’s your spoiler alert. The movie opens with Dr. Omalu holding the hand and talking with his patient (who is in fact dead). He is a neuropathologist working in the coroner’s office in Pittsburgh. He really treats the dead with reverence and asks that they tell him their story.
Eventually, a man named Mike Webster ends up on his table. Mike Webster is relatively young and a former player of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dr. Omalu is at first perplexed as the man shows clear symptoms of psychosis (like super gluing his own teeth back in), yet his brain upon a scan looks completely normal.
Dr. Omalu pays out of his own pocket to run tissue analysis on the brain of this man so he can figure out just what exactly is going on. He discovers that there is, in fact, microscopic injury to the brain from repeated head trauma over the years of playing professional football and suffering thousands of head hits over a lifetime. He calls his finding Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (or CTA).
Here’s where it gets very interesting. More and more former NFL players have dementia, psychosis, and suicidal symptoms and die at young ages , 45 and younger. Dr. Omalu pays out of pocket to have these tests run on their brains and almost all of them come back with CTA. He finds a special protein in their brains (Tau protein) that is consistent with that of a 90 year old.
Dr. Omalu presents his findings to the NFL thinking that they will be happy about his research and work to make the game safer. In fact, the opposite happens. The NFL is a powerful organization with a lot of money. They, of course don’t want their cash cow sacrificed on the alter of safety. They call him a fraud, threaten him, and eventually have him fired from his city job.
All of this happened in 2005. It wasn’t until 2016 that the NFL actually admitted to the link between football and CTE. CTE is also commonly found in military veterans with PTSD. It wasn’t until 2017 that a test was discovered that could actually detect these proteins rather than waiting to do an autopsy after death.
After watching the movie, seeing the hits during football games just makes me cringe. There was one recently where a player was in a stupor and couldn’t walk straight after a hit. Even my husband, who loves football, has talked about how hard some of these hits are. It is scary.
So far, there have been 52 former football players (since 2005) who have been diagnosed with CTE post-mortem. There are also 37 players that are diagnosed with ALS. The symptoms of ALS are another way that CTE can present. Tim Shaw, most notably, noticed changes in his body while he was still playing football. He was cut from his team, the Tennessee Titans in 2013, It was many doctor’s visits before he was diagnosed with ALS in 2014, at only 30 years old.
In 2013, 4500 former players reached a settlement with the NFL for concussion-related injuries.