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Bennet Omalu reiterates dangers of youth football

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered the brain

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered the brain disease CTE, speaks as part of the Head Injury Association conference, "Protecting School-Aged Athletes from Concussion", in Hauppauge, March 30, 2016. Credit: Ed Betz

Interweaving his faith and his belief in science, Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist whose discovery of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy was the basis for the movie “Concussion,” called on the NFL to stop denying the existence of CTE. He also asked parents and administrators to re-evaluate their involvement in youth football.

“Denying it won’t do any good,” Omalu said Wednesday at the Head Injury Awareness Celebrity Sports Forum in Hauppauge. “Let us [the scientific community and the NFL] walk together to enhance our common humanity and find solutions . . . By my faith, even the life of one NFL player is far greater than the entire NFL put together.”

Speaking of youth football, Omalu cited a 1957 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics that said children under the age of 13 should not play “body contact” sports. Though the AAP has backed away from that stance — its most recent paper on the subject, published in 2015, underlines the need for proper tackling technique — Omalu said even “one concussion undermines a child’s intellectual capacity.”

“Faith tells us we should evolve and in every humility give up the things of the past . . . to preserve who we are: people of light. People of truth,” he said. “You lose your mind. This is what you are, your brain. And yet in 2016, we, as a society . . . will put a helmet on a child and send him out on a field to bang his head against another child’s head.”

Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, recently acknowledged a link between football and brain disorders, such as CTE, the first time the league has admitted a connection. Miller made the admission during a discussion before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Others in Wednesday’s panel, notably former Yale football player John Nitti, were more temperate. Nitti had one son play for Cornell and has another playing at Bucknell. He said although he had no problem with their involvement in the sport, he saw the need for change.

“It is ingrained in our culture,” Nitti said. “We don’t want to give it up, so what we have to do is fix it . . . Perhaps there are other things that can be done to save the sport many of us love, but first and foremost, we need to protect our humanity.”

Nitti was joined by former Giant Harry Carson and former Jets Rich Caster and Marty Lyons, who talked about their own experiences with repeated blows to the head. Carson, who said he would not have played football if he had known what he knows now, has made sure his young grandson does not play the sport.

“I am not willing to assume that risk,” said the Hall of Fame linebacker, who added that he was the only non-Steeler to attend Mike Webster’s funeral in 2002. Webster, a Hall of Fame center, endured depression, dementia and homelessness after retiring from football, and his autopsy led to Omalu’s research.

“All who played assumed the risk of getting hurt physically,” Carson said. “What we didn’t know about were the neurological effects.”

Omalu said he did not oppose the NFL. Grown men, he said, have a right to do what they wish, but interspersed scripture with his own understanding to underline the need for accountability and research. Since that first, groundbreaking study on Webster, he’s continued his research — much out of pocket, he said — and hopes to one day find a way to temper the effects of CTE. Although it cannot be diagnosed in a living brain, doctors, Omalu included, are looking at experimental ways to diagnose it. As it stands, they must look at the full slate of symptoms to make a reasonable conclusion of CTE.

“We are members of one another,” he said. “What binds us together is far greater than what separates us . . . because of our interconnectivity, what happens to the least of us happens to all of us. Whatever you do for the least of us, you do for all of us.”

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