Will Smith film thrusts safety of youth football into spotlight
In the late 1960s when George Novak played linebacker for Georgia Tech University, he and his teammates crashed into opponents head-first — exhibiting the right way to tackle at the time.
“They taught us to put our head on the other player's numbers,” said Novak, a respected coach of Woodland Hills High School's football team. “Things have changed so much since then.”
These days, Woodland Hills and high schools across the nation teach players to lead with their shoulders, not their helmets, to avoid head injuries.
“We spend a lot of time emphasizing the right way to do things in football,” said Novak, who is the high school's athletic director. “But there are going to be injury risks involved in any sport you play. Anything you do in life, there's a risk involved.”
Those risks are at the center of heated health-related debates surrounding Thursday's release of the movie “Concussion,” set in Pittsburgh and starring actor Will Smith as former Allegheny County Deputy Coroner Bennet Omalu.
Omalu, a neuropathologist, is credited with discovering a link between head injuries and the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. He made the link while examining the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, who died in 2002 at 50.
Initially shunned and attacked for his findings by the National Football League, Omalu since has risen to become a key figure in increasing awareness about brain injuries and contact sports throughout the country.
Pros and cons
The awareness comes with continued disputes about football safety.
In a widely circulated editorial this month titled “Don't Let Kids Play Football,” Omalu contended children should not play high-impact sports.
“The human brain becomes fully developed at about 18 to 25 years old. We should at least wait for our children to grow up, be provided with the information and education on the risk of play, and let them make their own decisions,” he wrote.
His statements led to public outrage.
“The war on football is real,” Danny Kanell, an ESPN football analyst and former Florida State and NFL quarterback, wrote in a Twitter post.
Dr. Julian Bailes, a former Steelers team doctor who supported Omalu in his CTE discovery, said he and Omalu respectfully disagree about whether football is safe for children.
“I'm a big believer in the benefits of organized sports and the benefits of football,” said Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Chicago and medical director of the youth Pop Warner Football league.
“I have two children who play football, and I think football is safer than it's ever been,” he said.
Bailes, portrayed in the movie by actor Alec Baldwin, said nobody knows the prevalence of CTE. The 150 documented cases do not represent a statistically significant sample, he said.
“Those that have been tested were those who the family brought forward after death, thinking that they had CTE, thinking they were symptomatic, thinking they were showing signs and symptoms,” Bailes said. “So it's a very skewed, very biased sample if you look at it scientifically or epidemiologically.
“I don't think we have an epidemic on our hands.”
Omalu was in Pittsburgh on Tuesday for a preview screening of “Concussion.” He said scientists cannot deny that continuous blows to the head are extremely dangerous.
“If we know that, why do we continue to expose our children to such dangerous activities?” he asked. “This is not anti-football. This is not anti-NFL. If you are an adult and you decide to play, that is your right. I would be the first to stand by you to defend your right, liberty and freedom to play — but as an adult, not as a child.”
There's a widespread belief in medicine that intellectual disagreements best advance scientific knowledge and discoveries.
Dr. Ronald L. Hamilton, a board-certified neuropathologist and associate professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, trained Omalu at Pitt in brain diseases that cause dementia.
He assisted Omalu in examining slides of portions of Webster's brain and is included as an author in Omalu's paper on CTE published in the Neurosurgery medical journal.
“There's no doubt that disagreements are a great thing in science,” said Hamilton, whose character is played by actor Stephen Moyer. “For example, I diplomatically and scientifically disagree with Dr. Bailes and agree with Dr. Bennet when it comes to children and football.
“I'm all in favor of a legal age for football. I don't think it's a good thing for parents to be playing Russian roulette with their kids' brains.”
Hamilton, who attended the preview screening at SouthSide Works Cinema, was impressed that the movie highlights important points about CTE and humanizes the field of neuropathology.
“Concussions are what you get now,” he said. “CTE is what you get 10 years from now. The movie drove that point home.
”I think people will watch football differently after seeing that movie, and they will think about it differently. The next time they watch a football game, it will be a different kind of game for them. They'll have flashbacks to Mike Webster.”
‘Jury's still out'
John Roman, a former New York Jets offensive lineman and CEO of a Philadelphia-based sports technology company that designs protective sports headgear, is 63 and wonders about CTE.
“I think Dr. Omalu's work has caught everyone's attention,” he said. “I've never experienced symptoms of CTE, knock on wood, and I hope that I don't become one of those statistics down the road.”
Still, Roman tends to side with Bailes.
“We need more discovery here. We need a more extensive database of subjects across multiple contact sports,” he said. “The jury's still out, but I just hope that the game survives.
“My sense is that it will survive but probably in a different way.”
Ben Schmitt is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached him at 412-320-7991 or email@example.com.