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His brave stand changed how we view football and head injuries

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Friday, March 2, 2018 8:49 PM

It’s fortunate for athletes that some immigrants from President Donald Trump’s expletive-deleted African countries were welcomed rather than rejected as hut-dwelling undesirables.

Bennet Omalu, who was born in Nigeria, is a naturalized American citizen. He’s a forensic pathologist also certified in neuropathology. Will Smith starred as Omalu in “Concussion,” the 2015 movie based on Omalu’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in professional football players.

Michael (Iron Mike) Webster, retired Pittsburgh Steelers center and Pro Football Hall of Famer, died destitute and demented in 2002. Omalu did the autopsy. When he examined Webster’s brain, he saw evidence of the rare disorder known as “dementia pugilistica” – fighters’ dementia – because it had been described in boxers.

Realizing that the implications could be profound, Omalu forked over his own money to pay for esoteric tests that confirmed his diagnosis. He published his findings in 2005.

The NFL would be “pleased” to learn that someone had discovered a previously unrecognized danger to players, Omalu thought. The league would willingly take steps to “fix the problem.” Instead, the NFL attacked Omalu personally and professionally and attempted to discredit his research. An NFL committee called for Omalu to retract his paper, characterizing it as “a failure” and Omalu as “completely wrong.”

Omalu found CTE in several other NFL players and published a second paper in 2006.

It took until 2009 for the NFL to acknowledge a link between repeated concussions and brain injury. It took until early 2017 for a settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by former players to compel the NFL to pay compensation to those who developed neurological problems. A lawyer for the players says the “flawed” claims process “moves at a glacial pace.” Clearly, the NFL is anything but pleased.

But the NFL does treat concussions more seriously, now. Playing rules have changed. Doctors monitor games in real time. Concussed players are removed from play.

It’s true that “Concussion” engaged in a certain amount of dramatic license with some of the circumstances surrounding Omalu’s discovery and the NFL’s reaction to it. Some say a few scenes in the film were fabricated and that Omalu’s conclusions were overstated.

It’s true that there is plenty doctors don’t know about CTE: We don’t know if the brain injury pattern Omalu saw is the direct cause of or one of several contributors to dementia, depression, other mental illnesses and suicide. We don’t know how many athletes who participate in contact sports will develop this pattern. We don’t know the number of concussive injuries necessary to cause it. We don’t know if catastrophic consequences will eventually befall everyone who develops the pattern or only a vulnerable minority. We don’t know what the vulnerabilities might be.

We do know that people who are repeatedly concussed are subject to a non-trivial risk of brain injury and that for some of those people, the consequences will be terrible.

Everyone who participates in contact sports and everyone who loves someone who does should be concerned. Every parent whose child may want to play football in the future should pay attention to advances in this field of study. Those parents have Bennet Omalu to thank for recognizing a potential danger to their kids.

Omalu is a forensic pathologist and a colleague who observed more closely than most, noticed something nobody else had and bravely stood his ground. That makes me proud.

Last December, Omalu resigned his position as forensic pathologist for San Joaquin County, California. Next month, I’ll tell you why.

Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Email her at chuser@durangoherald.com.

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