Dr. Bennet Omalu: Contact sports will 'cease to exist' in a generation

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Former Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster passed in 2002, after years of struggling with destitution, intellectual and cognitive impairment, depression, drug abuse, and suicide attempts. He was autopsied by Doctor Bennet Omalu who suspected pugilistic dementia, even though Webster's brain looked normal. Dr. Omalu self-financed further tissue analysis, and discovered a large accumulation of tau protein in Webster's brain. In 2005, Dr. Omalu published the findings in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005 in a paper entitled, "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player."

The NFL pushed back hard, and eventually lost, in a historic moment that was chronicled in the Hollywood hit Concussion starring Will Smith as Dr. Omalu. The NFL has paid out $500 million to date, and is expected to pay double that amount in time. Further, Dr. Omalu's work has led to a heightened awareness of the potential dangers of head trauma in contact sports.

In an exclusive interview with Adrian Proszenko for Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, Dr. Omalu, now chief medical examiner for San Joaquin County, California, and professor at the UC-Davis department of medical pathology and laboratory medicine, predicted that contact sports will cease to exist.

"We are dealing with human life here," said Dr. Omalu. "In the next generation or two, mankind won't be playing sports like rugby or football or ice hockey or mixed martial arts. It just doesn't make sense to be damaging the brain of a human being. In a game like rugby, in every play there is a blow or impact to the head. The human species evolves, it's part of who we are to change. Society evolves, we move forward."

"It will take one generation. That means maybe by the time my generation passes away. The children being born today, with all that we know today now, I don't think they will embrace these violent sports the way we did."

"It's almost like child abuse, to intentionally expose a child to injury. It is not right. Studies have been done in the US - in just one game of football, a child receives about 50 blows. Some of them are like a car traveling at 30 miles an hour running into a brick wall. Your brain is 60-80 percent water, it's a very sensitive and vulnerable organ that floats freely inside your skull. There's nothing holding it down. So every sudden change in motion, the brain jolts around in your skull."

"My position has always been children shouldn't play such sports, because it damages the brain."

"Attitudes are changing. Participation in football is dropping, quite drastically, by 10 percent in one year. Hollywood has played a very significant role in educating the public by spending money on producing the movie Concussion and hiring a very well-known actor to participate. That has changed minds, that is a very powerful movie. More and more people are seeing it and are beginning to have second thoughts about participation in contact sports."

The brilliant doctor is of course wrong. Contact sports are not and will not ever cease to exist, because fighting is in our DNA - we like to watch fighting, and some of the best of us like to fight. However, it is unavoidably apparent that there is to a still unknown extent a price to be paid. For some, it is the impossibly high price of slowly losing their mind - everything they've got and everything they're ever going to have. How to reconcile that is a dialogue that must be embraced rather than avoided. And while adults are always going to hit or collide into each other for sport, for children, that could indeed become a thing of the past. And maybe it should. While the benefits of participation in tough sports are essential, there are sports that develop physical and mental toughness, with impact sufficient to jar the brain not a central goal, like wrestling.