Leading up to the release of the film Concussion on Christmas Day, starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, and Albert Brooks, as reported by IMDb, ESPN has released a report stating that the NFL “has backed out of one of the most ambitious studies yet” into a possible relation between football and brain disease. The NFL has responded by stating that the league did not “pull any funding.”
Concussion tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born doctor who was working as a coroner in 2002 when he discovered that former Pittsburgh Steelers’ center Mike Webster was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and dementia pugilistica when he died, which had previously been found in the brains of boxers, according to GQ. Webster’s case was the first found in a football player.
In 2005, Dr. Omalu published his research in a paper entitled “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a National Football League player,” which is hosted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. According to reports, the NFL made “attempts to silence Dr. Bennet Omalu” when faced with lengthy and compelling evidence.
“I was naive,” Dr. Omalu was quoted in 2009. “There are times I wish I never looked at Mike Webster’s brain. It has dragged me into worldly affairs I do not want to be associated with. Human meanness, wickedness, and selfishness. People trying to cover up, to control how information is released. I started this not knowing I was walking into a minefield. That is my only regret.”
The latest news that the NFL has “backed away” from a Boston University brain study is said to be simply “not accurate,” according to Brian McCarthy, a spokesman with the NFL.
From 2003 to 2009, the NFL reportedly published research attempting to discredit the notion that there could be a connection between professional football, concussions, and brain injury. However, some of these findings were later “discredited.” Since then, the NFL is reported to have donated “tens of millions of dollars” to research into brain injuries, giving the league a huge amount of influence.
Some doctors are reported to hold a belief that the NFL uses its “money and influence to reward researchers” who publish research promoting quality equipment, proper tackling techniques, and overall safety.
Research published without NFL backing seems to focus on different topics. Eric Nauman and Thomas Talavage with Purdue University have detected “dramatic changes in brain chemistry” associated with the repetitive head trauma experienced by football players.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appeared on a recent episode of 60 Minutes, where he was asked if NFL-funded research into brain trauma could be “sowing the seeds” of the league’s “destruction.”
Goodell insisted that the NFL is on a fact-finding mission and has no interest in swaying the results of any research. The NFL commissioner explained that learning the facts will help the league learn “better solutions” and cited this as a reason that the league is backing research in CTE. Goodell gave the Boston University study as an example of research the NFL is backing.
The executive director with the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, Dr. Eric Reiman, stated that there is an “urgent need” to learn more about the effects of CTE now that its relationship with repetitive head trauma is more widely understood. Reiman states that more information is needed to protect players already affected and those who are at risk of developing CTE.
Martha Shenton, a professor of radiology and psychiatry with Harvard University, explained that there are still too many unknowns, but that with more information, a prevention of a cascade of further “progressive changes” could potentially be stopped in those who are at risk. Understanding exactly just which group carries the highest risk of developing CTE remains a goal of researchers.
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