Concussion: Seeking the next Big Tobacco

by Saurabh Jha

ScreenHunter_1711 Feb. 22 10.22As a general rule, if you keep clobbering a body part it may, in the long run, get damaged. This is hardly rocket science. Soldiers marching long distances can get a stress fracture known as “March fracture.” The brain is no exception. Boxers can get “dementia pugilistica.” This is why we frown upon people who bang their heads against brick walls.

Footballers are at risk of brain damage, specifically a neurodegenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE was described in a football player by forensic pathologist, Bennet Omalu, who performed an autopsy on Michael Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steeler. Webster died of a heart attack but had a rapid and mysterious cognitive decline. Webster’s brain appeared normal at first. When Omalu used a special technique, he found a protein, known as tau, in the brain.

Omalu’s discovery inspired the movie Concussion in which Will Smith plays the pathologist. The Fresh Prince plays convincingly a god-fearing, soft-spoken but brilliant physician, who is up against incredulous colleagues and the National Football League (NFL). The NFL clearly has a lot to lose from Omalu’s discovery. However, the director’s attempt to emulate The Insider, where big tobacco tailgates the scientist, fails at many levels.

This is not just because the NFL is not really Big Tobacco. The NFL is adept at playing to the gallery. Recently, it carried a pink logo to increase awareness of breast cancer. The NFL could have chosen prostate cancer. But solidarity with sisters is better PR than showing solidarity with brothers.

The reason why Concussion fails to ignite memories of Big Tobacco is that there is still a lot we don’t know about CTE, or the precise risks of banging one’s head. Some who play contact sports develop CTE, but many are unaffected. CTE has also been reported in people who haven’t had concussive injuries.

Omalu’s discovery has predictably touched our inner sanctum of social justice. Some want college football to be banned. Pitchforks have been raised full mast against the NFL. A narrative has developed in which the rich, greedy and unethical NFL conscripts young, hapless, unsuspecting men from poor families to inevitable brain damage. Righteous indignation is especially delicious when backed by science.

Read more »