Beyond the rhetoric: It is time to deal with concussions

Harry C. Alford

Harry C. Alford

First let me make a recommendation. Everyone should see the movie Concussion. Actor Will Smith will probably get an Oscar for his role. He plays Dr. Bennet Omalu who links mental illness to football. His claim is that a high number of football players experience concussions and a noticeable number of them end up with mental disorders and extreme depression. He coined the term for this prognosis: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). He obtained support from other doctors and submitted his findings to a prestigious medical journal. It was accepted. That is when the National Football League found out about his research and all hell broke loose.

The NFL tried to discredit him. They hounded him and his wife. They actually had the FBI harass him and one of his partners. Then they pushed him out of Pittsburgh. Nearly broken, he left for California. But his study could not be refuted and the general public as well as football players started speaking up. The movie has a happy ending.

The first football player to catch the attention of Dr. Omalu was Mike Webster. I first met Mike on the University of Wisconsin campus. It was my senior year and Mike was a freshman center. Freshmen could not play varsity athletics at the time, so Mike and the other freshmen were ‘practice bait’ for the upper class men. I love football, which is what led me to be a football player. Mike was probably born to play football. We were impressed by this freshman, who could handle the best of us during scrimmaging. We weren’t wrong. Mike went on to star for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was selected to the Pro Bowl every year he played and at the end he walked into the Football Hall of Fame. Such a great rise to fame followed by a lifetime of sorrow and tragedy.

After football something started happening. People figured he had lost his mind: homeless, living in a vehicle, drugs and liquor. ‘Strong Mike’ eventually died with most people in Pittsburgh assuming steroids were the cause. It was not! Dr. Omalu performed the autopsy and discovered the reason. His brain was a total mess. Finally, he surmised it was due to the violence to the head for 10 straight years. He went on to prove this and that for two other Pittsburgh Steelers.

Concussions were common within my football experience. During my high school days I guess I delivered a few of them to opposing teams. In college, I received a few light ones and one big one that put me into the hospital. Team doctors were in denial as well as the coaches. The coaches would conclude that, “He got his bell rung.” They overlooked the possibility of serious long-term harm. “Learn to endure pain,” was the mantra of one of my high school coaches.

When the pressure of the NFL Players Association (union) led into a class action lawsuit, the NFL finally caved in. More than 5,000 current and former NFL players joined in the action. It was settled and players and veterans are now being compensated. After years of denying it, the NFL finally admitted that there is truth in Dr. Omalu’s study. The sham was exposed when Dave Duerson, NFL Hall of Famer and an NFL executive which made him a corporate insider, committed suicide. On his nightstand he left a letter which explained his deep depression and conclusion that something was wrong with him. He donated his brain for analysis.

The great Hall of Fame running back, Tony Dorsett, talks about his experience. Without warning he will lash out at family members and get violent. He said: “When there is a family get together and I show up, my two daughters gather their children and leave.” He can’t stop these explosions and he is terribly depressed about it.

Okay. So now we all believe that the problem exists. The NFL has created a process known as ‘Concussion Protocol.’ No one disputes the problem. But yet, there appears to be no effort being made to solve the problem.

There must be a well-funded and organized effort to find a cure and to work harder to prevent these injuries. The key to prevention lies in the football helmet. We must find a way to make it shockproof. The brain has no padding around it. Sudden shock makes it move around bouncing into the scull. The accumulation of such shock alters our mind. There are plenty of us walking around who may be in danger. Remember the effects don’t show until later. I pray that I don’t emulate others like Tony Dorsett. Even worse, like my college buddy Mike Webster.

There were two other team mates of mine that went out in similar fashion.

Let’s find the road to prevention. The sooner, the better.

(Mr. Alford is the co-founder, president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. For more information about the NBCC, visit . Contact Harry Alford by e-mail at <halford@nationalbcc.org>.)