On any given Sunday, 20 million Americans watch Sunday Night Football—consistently one of the top-rated shows on television. As a lifelong fan, I have tuned in often. In February 2016, over 100 million viewers watched Super Bowl 50. This weekend, as many or more are sure to watch Super Bowl 52.
On the field, an army of cameras will ensure NFL fans see the runs, passes, and hits. Overhead cameras will even capture the faces of linebackers who threaten opposing quarterbacks.
Despite the grimaces, though, the most threatening thing facing NFL players on Sunday will not be seen on the field and is often not seen until it is too late.
We have one man’s faith to thank for bringing it to light.
In the 2015 movie Concussion, Will Smith portrayed Dr. Bennet Omalu. Dr. Omalu is a neuropathologist who diagnosed the first case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in a former NFL player. Unlike the jarring effects of a concussion—very often—the memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and other symptoms of CTE do not manifest immediately. While concussions are tremendous injuries, it is repeated head trauma that leads to CTE.
While observing the physical and mental decline of one football player, Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster, Dr. Omalu came to understand—like so many NFL families knew—that something more significant was going on. Dr. Omalu examined the brain tissue of Webster and other players and used science to connect the “evidence of things not seen” with a real disease.
When I played football as a teenager, I wish Dr. Omalu’s breakthrough had existed. And yet, even many years later when it did come to light, his discovery was largely ignored.
The NFL moved to discredit both Dr. Omalu and his research. During this time, Dr. Omalu’s faith held firm. He wondered if he was the “wrong one to have discovered this.” Nevertheless, he knew that a higher power can and often does use the most unlikely among us to do incredible good.
Dr. Omalu also knew his motives were pure. He knew something that could not been seen was killing NFL players, and he knew these men needed help. He also knew that his research—not being seen for other reasons—could help. In one particularly moving scene from Concussion, Dr. Omalu plainly admonishes the NFL — Tell the truth.
In 2010, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was diagnosed with CTE. The then-26 year-old NFL player died tragically. He was the first active NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE. This diagnosis, and the years of work done before it, laid the path for Dr. Omalu’s story of faith to be told. Henry’s diagnosis and a deeper understanding of the impact of repeated head trauma also highlights a striking truth—the effect of CTE on communities in America.
Approximately two-thirds of NFL players in any given year come from one community: the African American community, as of 2013. Even as they put their bodies at risk, many of these men think they have the opportunity to impact a community that—in the United States—has and continues to be socio-economically depressed.
Meanwhile, though many NFL players make millions of dollars, the majority of players do not make incredible salaries. In fact, the average NFL salary is the lowest of the four major American professional sports leagues.
In the past few years, we have seen a nationwide movement affirming the worth of black lives. Well black lives matter in the NFL too.
The most recently recognized case of CTE surfaced with the tragic death of Aaron Hernandez. The New York Times reported: “Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end and a convicted murderer, was 27 when he committed suicide in April. Yet a posthumous examination of his brain showed he had such a severe form of the degenerative brain disease C.T.E. that the damage was akin to that of players well into their 60s.”
The good news is, at least some of those associated with the NFL are beginning to heed the warning of Dr. Omalu. In addition to the NFL’s concussion protocol during games, a group of former NFL players—out of a concern about CTE—are encouraging parents not to allow their children to play tackle football before age 14. HealthDay.com reports: “The group is instead endorsing a program called Flag Football Under 14, launched by the Concussion Legacy Foundation.”
I have faith that through a film’s account of Dr. Omalu’s work and his own faith, and underlying research, the NFL of tomorrow will be safer than it is today. The reality is, football has the potential to have a lasting destructive impact on the bodies of the young men who participate in the sport. We all have a responsibility to tell the truth, to shine a light, and to help others. We must stand with Dr. Omalu—and others committed to players’ safety—to do just that.
We do not yet have a cure for CTE. However, I believe Dr. Omalu is the “evidence” of “things not seen.” It’s time for our faith in the truth of CTE to match his.
Originally published, in slightly different form, on Huffington Post. Republished with permission.
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