Who discovered CTE

"Shattering Truth" About Football: Sport With Fatal Consequences

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"You are going to war against a company that owns an entire day of the week," says the film "Shattering Truth". Said company is the National Football League, which brings countless Americans in front of the TV sets every Sunday.

The doctor Bennet Omalu goes to war against the NFL. In 2005 he first brought the athlete's disease CTE into connection with the American national sport of football and made no friends with it at the NFL. Omalu's whole story has now been filmed - for the most part true to the truth. Will Smith mimes the Nigerian-born neuropathologist Omalu.

The real story began in 2002. Omalu found after the autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster that it was not cancer or mental illness that drove the former football player into divorce, glue addiction and homelessness, but a variety of concussions - 70,000 according to Omalu's account. Chronic-traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or Boxer's syndrome is called this disease. In contrast to what is shown in the film, Omalu did not discover CTE, but only made it visible in the brain of a football player for the first time.

NFL stands across

After publishing his research results in 2005 in the journal "Neurosurgery", Omalu hoped for a rethink at the NFL, but it got in his way. Three representatives wrote to the editor of the journal, suspecting "serious flaws" in Omalu's study and demanding an official recall of the publication.

But Omalu was not intimidated. He dissected the brains of other football players, came to similar conclusions, and published them. He was soon supported by influential allies such as Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon at West Virginia University Hospital and former physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The turning point came in 2009 with an article by journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas in GQ magazine detailing Omalu's discovery and denouncing the NFL. The film "Shattering Truth" is based on Laska's article. Shortly after their report came out, the NFL first published the results of another study that also showed that the brains of former football players had increased memory damage. In 2009, stricter requirements were introduced to reduce head injuries in professional football.

Brain dysfunction

CTE is a disorder that occurs after frequent head injuries. "With every fall, the head is compressed like a ball and then pulled apart again, and the brain is also pressed forwards and backwards with pressure. This creates a lot of small trauma," says neurologist Nikolaus Steinhoff. Affected athletes would have what normally only occurs in old age at the age of 30: lots of small damage to the brain. "These injuries damage brain centers or connections between them. Possible consequences can be that those affected can no longer concentrate, become slower or become depressed due to psychological stress," says Steinhoff.

"In addition to boxers and football players, footballers can also suffer damage, especially from headers or rugby players, which later lead to CTE," said Steinhoff. In an interview with the New York Times, neuropathologist Omalu demanded that children under the age of 18 should be banned from playing football.

But do parents of sports-loving children now have to worry? "Unfortunately, it is the case that brain damage can result in sports such as soccer, football or rugby," says Steinhoff. Concerned parents had often come to him with their children because they had observed a slowdown in their children after a concussion.

Football players who play particularly daring and aggressive are particularly loved by the fans. In the past, NFL players have made headlines with off-field aggressiveness. A video showing professional football player Ray Rice knocking his girlfriend unconscious and dragging a piece of meat out of an elevator went around the world two years ago.

Coarsening of personality

Are the many concussions also the reason for the private brutality of the players? According to Steinhoff, it always depends on the personality of a player, but brain damage always has an effect: "Injuries in the lower part of the brain change social behavior and social competence. The personality becomes coarser, and those affected have less empathy for others and lose the drive to control themselves ". Social isolation, depression and drug addiction can be the result, as can be the case with the football players studied by Bennet Omalu.

CTE is still hardly an issue in the dressing rooms of football stadiums. 65 percent of players hide symptoms of a concussion in order to keep playing, according to a 2012 survey by The Sporting News magazine. "When I'm not playing, it feels like I'm letting my team down ", one of the participating players is quoted.

In the public debate, however, the health risks of the national sport of football are being discussed more and more frequently. Last year, NFL talent Chris Borland ended his career early because he didn't want to expose himself to the potential damage to his brain. In addition, more and more football players are making their brains available to CTE research after their death.

Although the football euphoria with 111.9 million Super Bowl viewers in the USA alone does not seem to have been broken this year, pessimists repeatedly predict an end to the American national sport. President Obama also voiced his concerns about the safety of athletes three years ago to the political magazine "The New Republic": "I'm a big football fan, but if I had a son I would have to think long and hard about whether I would let him play football ". (Bernadette Redl, February 23, 2016)