Sadly, it’s become a routine occurrence as more and more well-known athletes reveal that they believe they have chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE, a brain disease, its discovery, and the fallout from those findings all tie back to Pittsburgh. If you have seen the critically acclaimed 2015 movie Concussion starring Will Smith, you know that pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu first discovered CTE here in Pittsburgh.
Dr. Omalu was born in Nigeria and came to Pittsburgh to train as a neuropathologist in the Allegheny County Coroner’s office under the tutelage of Dr. Cyril Wecht. Though his tenure was here was short, his work has revolutionized the world of sports and medicine.
The tragic death in 2002 of Steelers great Mike Webster was the catalyst. In a 2009 expose in GQ magazine on Omalu’s work, journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas revealed how erratic Webster’s behavior had become by interviewing Bob Fitzsimmons, Webster’s lawyer. Webster contacted Fitzsimmons asking for help. Fitzsimmons sued the NFL on Webster’s behalf for disability payments, which the NFL contested. Webster’s condition was characterized in the article as such:
Mike Webster sat down and told Fitzsimmons what he could remember about his life. He had been to perhaps dozens of lawyers and dozens of doctors. He really couldn’t remember whom he’d seen or when. He couldn’t remember if he was married or not. He had a vague memory of divorce court. And Ritalin. Lots of Ritalin.
When Webster died of heart attack and his remains ended up on Omalu’s autopsy table, something nagged at the doctor. How could such an athletic man come to exhibit signs of dementia, paranoia, memory loss, and erratic and explosive behavior?
Omalu requested to do further testing on Webster’s brain and eventually discovered an accumulation of tau proteins that had gummed up the regions of Webster’s brain responsible for executive functioning, moods, and emotions. Omalu presented his findings in a medical journal and was dismissed out of hand by the NFL.
Unfortunately, it took several more athletes exhibiting symptom of CTE to die including Steeler Terry Long, who died at 45 by drinking antifreeze, and Steeler Justin Strzelczyk, who led Buffalo, New York, police on a high-speed chase for 40 miles before crossing into oncoming traffic, hitting a tanker truck, and dying in an explosion before the NFL began to take Omalu seriously. However, when they did, it was to discredit him until Congress began to investigate and the NFL players sued the league.
While the movie ends there, the repercussions of Dr. Omalu’s findings have been ongoing. They have revolutionized professional sports as well as athletics from college level down to the youngest participants. They have revolutionized how we prevent and treat head injuries. They have cost the NFL and estimated $1 billion in concussion-related settlements. Because of Omalu’s research, the words “concussion protocol” have become a commonplace phrase, and many athletes have come forward to reveal that they believe they have CTE and to request that their brains be donated upon their death for study. There is no test to diagnose CTE; it is only confirmed upon autopsy of the brain.
The NHL and the NCAA are also facing concussion-related lawsuits, and many of the professional leagues have instituted new rules with the hope of preventing concussions, and in some cases, opting to employ concussion spotters who have authority to pull a player exhibiting concussion symptoms. In Canada, checking has been banned in pee-wee division (11 and 12 year olds) hockey. According to the Little League baseball site, all 50 states have enacted some sort of concussion safety directive. Pennsylvania as well as the CDC have developed concussion programs whose missions are to educate coaches, trainers, officials, parents, and anyone involved in sports on how to prevent head injuries, spot possible concussions, and manage athletes with concussions.
Research in CTE has also grown, and concussion programs have sprung up all over the country. In Pittsburgh, UPMC founded the Sports Medicine Concussion Program, which conducts baseline brain testing. This establishes a baseline for normal brain functioning before a concussion occurs. The program also manages treatment, recovery, and rehabilitation from concussion. Some recover from concussion in a few days, others weeks or months, and some suffer long-term effects.
According to statistics from UPMC’s Concussion Program, it’s not just student athlete football players who suffer concussions. The second-most occurrence of concussion in sports is girls’ soccer and the third-most is girls’ basketball.
While all the research and prevention resulting from Dr. Omalu’s findings are gratifying, sadly the list of athletes who have succumbed to the disease or suspect they have it continues to grow. NFL greats like Bubba Smith, Ken Stabler, and Frank Gifford have all been confirmed to have had CTE upon their demise. What’s more tragic is that several other sufferers’ brains have been so impaired that they have also taken others’ lives. Pro wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife in an apparent murder-suicide, and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend before taking his own life. Forensic exams on both of their brains revealed signs of CTE. In 2015, Hall of Fame running back and University of Pittsburgh standout Tony Dorsett revealed that he believes he has CTE.
The potential for even more victims makes the future seem rather grim, but research into CTE is ongoing, including ways to diagnose the disease in the living. Ways to prevent new head trauma by developing safer helmets and instituting regulations to protect players are also being explored.
Common sense tells us that you can’t correct a problem until you identify it. Thanks to Dr. Bennet Omalu and the work he did in Pittsburgh on some of our sickest Steelers, he has given us the heads-up on how to keep current and future athletes safe and healthy.