by Irvin Muchnick
With the Concussion movie about to go into full national release, the Associated Press has examined the controversy over whether Bennet Omalu deserves sole credit for discovering and naming chronic traumatic encephalopathy. See “Concussion movie subject exaggerated role, researchers say,” http://bigstory.ap.org/article/00e9b68e26e649118f4f4279e7455d1c/concussion-movie-subject-exaggerated-work-researchers-say.
In my view, what is most disappointing about Concussion is its output: just another Big Science research platform for Omalu, at the University of Pittsburgh no less. Omalu rightly calls for the protection of young brains from the sport of football, just as we protect them from the sport of boxing — and by more extended analogy, from the known and long-term health deficits caused by cigarettes. But the vanity of a Hollywood production and attendant accolades have focused on National Football League intrigue and mixed the public health message about the first down of the football system, which is America’s legally non-consensual kids.
The archives of Concussion Inc. include some unfiltered history of the research credit controversy, and it is now appropriate to share it in full with readers.
I don’t think there’s serious doubt that Omalu was the prime discoverer, and more important prime mover, of the 21st century realization that CTE afflicts football players with an only slightly different delivery system than the one known for years to have afflicted boxers. At the same time, we’ll see that this proud, ambitious, and multi-disciplined scientist’s voice sometimes betrays an unhelpful and self-serving grandiosity and religiosity. His defense of turf against an old NFL boys’ network of researchers who wanted to bury his findings is understandable. But the way it comes out can be troubling.
On with the show, then. In the next post, we’ll be publishing the full texts of what Omalu said to me in May 2011 during an earlier round of the authenticity controversy.
First, some thoughts from Missouri-based football historian Matt Chaney, who has been searching, for a lot longer than either Omalu or me, for the lost train of America’s century-plus-long failure to face the truth about what this sport is doing to the brains of our male children.
I knew long ago in terrible DumbBall issues for players that I, as writer, wanted to find heroes in this mess. Unfortunately, I learned quickly there are none and cannot be until responsible action is finally taken, after some 130 years now for this colossal cultural screwup for our kids.
I think Bennet’s major problem right now is he is caught on the question of juveniles in football, simply because he is playing politics with that point. That is inexcusable, as far as I’m concerned.
A few impressions I took away from my January 2011 interview of Bennet:
a) he’s a brilliant man and someone I’ll always regard as historic dissident in the DumbBall mess.
b) he’s a man who doesn’t hesitate to tell a great story about himself; I thought he inserted himself as a pioneer and hero in football history, or viewed himself that way inaccurately, which bothered me but in minor fashion.
c) he repeatedly said, to paraphrase, “What did the world know about CTE before me? Nothing.”
d) that I, following the interview, had a lot of reading to do in boxing literature.
It appears to me, without yet “fleshing out” the newsline [which Concussion Inc. will publish later], that the football world was publicly confronted about brain damage in its players from about 1928 through the early 1960s.
From there, until Bennet’s work of the 2000s, the practical fact of brain damage in football players was shoved down and buried in public lexicon, discussion, opinion-forming.
I mean, I heard about football “concussion” before I ever donned helmet and pads in 1976.
But I only heard my pot smoking caused brain damage, as a kid. Brain damage from football? Nada. Nothing said by the mid-70s and 80s that I heard.
It’s up to our “experts” to ensure that never happens for any important health risk of this stupid game. Bennet either needs to learn or acknowledge correct history. This is more crucial than ever for a man or woman in his position of the moment.