Concussion depicts the true story of how American football’s honor got turned upside down. The movie stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who discovered that many deceased pro players suffered from a progressive degenerative brain disease (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) caused by repetitive brain impact, which often led to suicide.
Like most movies based on actual events, this one takes liberties with some things, and that’s OK. Whether represented authentically or not, here are 10 facts you need to know about Dr. Omalu, his discovery of CTE in NFL players and what effect that’s had on one of the world’s biggest sports industries.
Dr. Omalu was the first to publicly diagnose CTE in football players
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is the name of the disease Dr. Omalu found in football players’ brains, beginning in 2002 while working as a coroner in Pittsburgh. After many months of research followed by years of peer scrutiny, he finally made the discovery public in a scientific paper published in 2005.
By that time, the NFL had its own scientific papers published via its Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, research they used to dismiss Dr. Omalu’s. The organization even tried to have that initial CTE paper retracted by claiming it to be fraud.
It all began with Mike Webster
Dr. Omalu’s findings originated with the death of NFL Hall of Famer “Iron Mike” Webster (portrayed in Concussion by David Morse), who had played center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. His official cause of death has not been revealed, but the cause of that cause is credited to Dr. Omalu’s CTE diagnosis.
Dr. Omalu went on to examine the brains of NFL players Terry Long and Andre Waters, which made it a case series, or trend.
Being first isn’t Mike Webster’s only legacy with the issue of CTE
Mike Webster’s son Garrett, who was a teenager when his father died, is now an administrator at the Brain Injury Research Institute, which Dr. Omalu founded with former Pittsburgh Steelers physician and CTE research partner Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin in the movie) and Mike Webster’s attorney, Bob Fitzsimmons.
As part of his job, Webster reaches out to relatives of deceased players to donate their brains to science.
CTE is a disease that can unfortunately only be diagnosed after death
CTE has to be diagnosed post-mortem because it resides deep in the brain, where it causes gradual deterioration from the inside out, leading to dementia, depression, aggression and other serious effects. While suicide is common among its sufferers, some have also killed others before killing themselves.
There are ongoing efforts to find a way to diagnose CTE in living patients.
CTE has been around for almost a century
Prior to Dr. Omalu’s discovery of CTE in pro football players, it was a condition primarily associated with boxers going back to the 1920s. And it’s even been part of an ongoing boxing-ban debate in the UK’s House of Lords since the 1960s.
CTE doesn’t just affect athletes
Before Dr. Omalu named it CTE, the disease was only known for one type of CTE, dementia pugilistica – terminology clearly affixing it to the one sport of boxing. Now it’s found in anyone who had suffered repeated brain injury, including hockey players, pro wrestlers, competitive cheerleaders and members of the military.
Dr. Omalu knew nothing about American football before making his discovery
Just as the movie shows, Dr. Omalu had never really watched American football before “meeting” Mike Webster during the player’s autopsy. He wouldn’t have even known who the man was had his death not been all over the news.
Born in Nigeria in 1968, Dr. Omalu began medical school there as a teenager and came to the United States in the mid-1990s. Though he found football to be “a pointless game,” he quickly became an expert on the sport as part of his research.
Dr. Omalu’s critics used his non-American origins against him
It would have been difficult for anyone to go up against the NFL with findings like those of Dr. Omalu’s. The fact that he was an outsider, not yet an American citizen, made it easier for his critics and adversaries to discredit him.
He was attacked by NFL officials and fans, some of whom claimed that he was a foreigner trying to take down an American institution, that he was from the corrupt country known for scams, and that his medical background was based in voodoo.
The NFL didn’t actually take too long to acknowledge Dr. Omalu’s findings
In 2009, four years after Dr. Omalu’s first paper was published and two years after the league held a summit where officials further denied the CTE diagnoses, the NFL finally acknowledged long-term effects of concussions for its players. Posters that were the equivalent of cigarette pack warnings even went up in NFL locker rooms.
But the league still would not confirm a definite link between football and CTE.
A few years after that, thousands of former pros sued the league, which wound up settling for $765 million without having to admit any wrongdoing. The NFL has also put in millions of dollars into continued research about the effects of concussions and how to improve the safety of players’ protective gear.
More than 87 former NFL players are now known to have had CTE
At least three diagnoses of CTE in deceased football players were needed for Dr. Omalu to make a case about the issue. In Concussion, we see it found in the brains of a few more. In September 87 NFL players were determined to have suffered from CTE before they died.
That’s 96 percent of NFL players whose brains were part of a study at Boston University. The same research showed CTE in 79 percent of brains of a total 165 individuals who had played football professionally, semi-professionally or academically in high school or college.
And more NFL players, including Frank Gifford, have been revealed since that study.