Sports fans, enjoy coming together and watching their teams score touchdowns, their favorite boxer deliver a knockout blow and witness their favorite ice hockey team compete for a title. But what some don’t realize is that behind the hits and the glamour, these elite athletes’ brains are being slowly and significantly punished. With each hit and each blow, athletes are becoming more and more likely to leave the sport with permanent brain damage, and that fact alone has left most people’s minds.
The awareness of concussions and brain traumatic injuries has skyrocketed due to the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) by Nigerian American physician, Forensic pathologist, and Neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu. In 2002, Omalu was assigned to perform an autopsy on Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame Center, Mike Webster who died of a severe heart attack. That autopsy on Webster has changed the way many people and sports fans view high contact sports today.
“That morning I did the autopsy, I saw myself in Mike Webster,” Omalu said. “When I heard about his story and the difficulties that he had, that made me recognize that he played a high impact and high collision sport. I knew then that he had suffered brain damage from football.”
According to an ESPN article on Jan. 16, 2016, there were 267 total concussions reported by NFL teams. That so far, has been the highest number of concussions since 2012, where it was 261 reported concussions. In boxing, it is stated that 90 percent of fighters suffer brain injuries after their career is done, and boxing is the only sport with no concussion policy in place. In 2015, the concussion numbers in rugby soared by 59 percent and is projected to continue to do so. In 2012, there was a total of 3,800,000 concussions reported between all contact sports, doubling what was reported in 2002. Also, an estimated 5.3 million Americans live with a traumatic brain injury-related disability.
Those statistics listed above, document the harsh reality of playing high contact sports.
Dr. Omalu didn’t have any prior knowledge of any high contact sport, but he knew that something odd appeared during the autopsy of Webster, which led him to continue to do more research on his brain. As Omalu went on to do further research, in the end, he discovered the degenerative traumatic brain injury, which is now known as CTE.
Sports fans and the NFL despised Omalu’s discovery and even committed numerous of attempts to eradicate CTE, but Omalu stood firm that the truth of playing high contact sports would prevail in the end.
“I want them to simply embrace and recognize the truth,” Omalu said. “Sometimes the truth can be inconvenient, and difficult, but we can’t deny the truth because of its pain. This activity (high contact sports) is a dangerous activity and it can cause significant damage to the body.”
Even though the NFL has been put on notice about the continuous problem of brain injuries since CTE was released, Omalu says that this discovery isn’t mainly about the NFL.
“This is not about the NFL or the NHL or any of them, this is about the consumer, this is about the parents and their children,” Omalu said. “That is what my position has always been and what it still remains. If your child plays any high impact, high collision sports, your child has a 100 percent risk exposure to brain damage. For a child, all it takes is one season for them to have brain damage, or it can take just one hit. Children should all engage in non-contact sports.”
An estimated 4 to 5 million concussions occur annually, with rising numbers among middle school athletes.
While the numbers of reported concussions continue to rise at a staggering rate, Omalu believes it is the time that all people embrace the problem and not be afraid of what life would be like without high collision sports.
“It is the time that we all embrace change,” Omalu said. “We need to embrace it, it is a part of who we are. Science tells us that we must evolve as a society, as a species. Let us stop embedding ourselves in the darkness of the past and embrace the great light of today, the great light of knowledge, and the great light of knowing the truth of science.”
Jakhari’s personal experience as a player:
As a former football player, writing and researching Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease of the brain caused by repetitive brain trauma, was one of the most eye-opening and jaw-dropping experiences I have had as a writer. Through all of my years of playing football, I never realized what I was doing to my brain and to my body.
Thankfully, I never was diagnosed with a concussion during my time as a football player, but I’ve witnessed some opposing players, and my former teammates suffer from concussions and other head injuries.
But despite what I know now about the dangerous risk of playing football, if I had to do it all over again I would in a heartbeat. The reason being is because what this sport has taught me is something I think I would learn too late in my life.
Football taught me how to be a leader, it taught me about brotherhood, it taught me discipline, and so much more. Honestly, if I never played football I wouldn’t be the young man that I am today. The sport molded me. It made me who I am.
I understand with that playing football can cause permanent brain damage, but those lessons that I’ve learned and the friendships that I’ve built through the sport is something I would always want to relive. It hurts my heart to know that a game I love so much can eat at a person’s brain, bit by bit.
Playing football will never be safe, that’s just the reality of it. I will say that now, with the new information that I know about playing football or any high collision sports, I won’t be encouraging my future children to play. That’s hard for me knowing that my older brothers played, and I played, so of course you would want your children to play. But their future health is more important than our personal wants.
The love that I’ve grown for football still remains the same, but I am no longer naive to the truth. Playing football can and probably will leave many athletes with lasting brain injuries, which can leave families in ruins. I will continue to watch football and appreciate the true beauty of the sport, but knowing what we know now about the end results of playing football shouldn’t be taken lightly.