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New film tackles dangers of concussions in the NFL

Dr. Bennet Omalu was working in a Pittsburg coroner's office when he was asked to examine the body of a local football hero. What he discovered would bring new attention to the hazards of head injuries. A new film, "Concussion," chronicles the NFL's early efforts to discredit the research. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next: tackling the problem of concussions, and the NFL’s response, past and present.

    The National Institutes of Health announced this week that it will fund a seven-year, $16 million research project to diagnose brain trauma in living players. It comes as a new movie opening this week zeros in on the sport, and one of the key researchers who pushed the league to change its approach.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    “Concussion” follows the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. A Nigerian-born forensic pathologist, Omalu was working in a Pittsburgh coroner’s office in 2002 when he was asked to examine the body of a local football hero, former Steelers center Mike Webster.

    He discovered protein deposits in Webster’s outwardly healthy brain, which he linked to repeated head trauma from football, and a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The film chronicles the league’s early efforts to discredit the research.

  • ACTOR:

    If you retract, you will be fine. This all goes away.

  • WILL SMITH, Actor:

    Why are they doing this?

  • ACTOR:

    They’re terrified of you. Bennet Omalu is going to war with a corporation that has 20 million people on a weekly basis craving their product, the same way they crave food. The NFL owns a day of the week.

  • DR. BENNET OMALU, Forensic Pathologist:

    I knew nothing about football. I knew nothing about the NFL

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Recently, we had the chance to talk with the real Bennet Omalu.

  • DR. BENNET OMALU:

    When I saw the pathologies of Mike’s brain, I reviewed all his medical records. There was no single mention of any disease. I thought America was a country made up of the most brilliant. How come nobody has seen this?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    An early ally, played in the film by Alec Baldwin, was Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon and former team doctor for the Steelers. He told us of his early trepidation at going public.

  • DR. JULIAN BAILES, Former Team Doctor, Pittsburgh Steelers:

    I remember remarking to my wife that this wasn’t going to be a fun journey. I had been a football player. It was my favorite sport. I didn’t want it to be true, but I felt that it was, and that we needed to bring it forward and that Bennet Omalu needed the help from myself and others to do that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    “Concussion” is a dramatized version of events, not a documentary, and experts say it overstates the role Omalu played in discovering and naming CTE.

    The family of one former player, Dave Duerson, has also criticized the film for the way he is portrayed, as opposing Omalu and ignoring fellow players showing symptoms of the disease. But there’s no doubt that in the years since Omalu published his findings in 2005, CTE and the hazards of head injuries have become a growing part of the conversation around football, as several more former players were discovered to have the disease, including Duerson, who committed suicide in 2011.

    Just recently, CTE was found in the brain of famed running back and commentator Frank Gifford, who died of natural causes earlier this year. That brought even more attention.

  • CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today:

    There are people in our culture who might not be following the football side of this story. They know Frank Gifford’s name and now they know he had CTE, and that takes this to a whole new level.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Christine Brennan is a sports columnist for USA Today.

  • CHRISTINE BRENNAN:

    And I think, like other social issues, be it drunk driving, be it cigarettes, things that you look at and say, wow, we have a different view of that than we did 20, 30 years ago, concussions and head trauma in football, that is another area where we have changed.

  • MAN:

    These players come down with dementia and Alzheimer’s and then they’re gone.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    “Frontline” updated the story just last night, and its review of research at Boston University found CTE in 87 of 91 recently deceased former NFL players and in 131 of 165 players at the high school, college and pro levels combined.

  • DR. JULIAN BAILES:

    I think it was the most significant breakthrough in modern neurological sports medicine, and that is that a helmeted athlete in a modern sport like football was found to have later-in-life brain degeneration.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Earlier this year, a judge accepted an NFL settlement that will pay out $1 billion to former players and families, but as a part of the deal, the league refused to say publicly what it knew about head trauma and when.

    In the agreement, the league says it expects about one-third of its players to suffer some form of cognitive impairment. The NFL also told the “NewsHour” in a statement that it has made nearly 40 rule changes in the last decade, strict concussion protocols, and better training and sideline medical care. The NFL says that’s led to a 34 percent decrease in concussions in NFL games since the 2012 season.

  • CHRISTINE BRENNAN:

    You have to acknowledge that the NFL is doing more than it was doing. Critics might say, well, it wasn’t doing much. But when you think about the fact that there is a spotter in the booth, someone who’s looking for this now independently and saying, hey, that player needs to get out of the game now.

    Having said that, a few weeks ago, you have the story of Case Keenum and the Rams, where he clearly had a concussion, he was clearly having problems, and he stayed in the game.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In fact, some neurologists worry that team doctors still can overrule other medical experts about whether a player should go back in the game. And there’s concern that spotters in the booth may miss less obvious concussions on the field.

    There are ongoing discussions at various levels of the game of changes, such as eliminating kickoffs or running no-hit practices. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has instituted an alternative tackling style to avoid leading with the head, so-called rugby style.

  • ACTOR:

    Do you have any idea the impact of what you’re doing?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The movie dramatically portrays the stakes for the NFL.

  • ACTOR:

    If just 10 percent of the mothers in America decide that football is too dangerous for their sons to play, that is it. It is the end of football, kids, colleges and, eventually, it’s just a matter of time, the professional game.

  • WILL SMITH:

    You know what history does to people, trained physicians, who ignore science.

  • ACTOR:

    Oh, wow.

  • WILL SMITH:

    Sir, I am not done. Tell the truth. Tell the truth.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Omalu would go further. Earlier this month, he publicly called for setting a minimum age of 18 to play football and other high-impact sports like ice hockey and mixed martial arts.

  • DR. BENNET OMALU:

    We do not intentionally expose our children to any risky behavior. That is why we don’t let children smoke, we don’t let children drive, we don’t let children drink, we don’t let children go into the military until they become adults.

  • DR. JULIAN BAILES:

    I don’t agree with him that football should be banned in kids.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Julian Bailes, who serves as medical director for Pop Warner Football, the largest youth league in the country, thinks that goes too far.

  • DR. JULIAN BAILES:

    Well, we eliminated head contact in practice, so for the most part, that doesn’t occur any more. We think the risk in youth football is extremely low and lower than ever, and we think the benefits of participating in such a great sport outweigh the risks.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Bailes does believe the NFL must continue to evolve, as does Omalu, who this year became a U.S. citizen.

  • DR. BENNET OMALU:

    I think, collectively, optimistically, we could find solutions. But to begin, the first step in a million miles is the truth. Like Will Smith said, tell the truth.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In the meantime, this holiday season, the debate and the games go on.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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