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Chris Honoré: A moral conundrum redux

The movie “Concussion” arrived in Ashland in late December and quickly slipped away. Nationwide, despite Will Smith’s solid performance as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian coroner working in Pittsburgh, Pa., the film never found an audience.

Dr. Omalu became focused on concussions and neuropathology by happenstance during the autopsy of local Pittsburgh football legend and Hall-of-Famer Mike Webster, a player who had reached the zenith of his sport only to end the last days of his life in cognitive and emotional decline while living out of his pickup truck. After a series of sophisticated tests on Webster’s brain, Dr. Omalu discovered that the player had suffered multiple concussions, which the doctor hypothesized were linked to Webster’s reported erratic behavior. He wrote two papers on what would soon be called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE+). Ultimately it would be diagnosed in over 100 NFL players, many having suffered from early onset dementia, out-of-character behavior and suicidal ideation.

From the outset, the league vigorously disputed Dr. Omalu’s research, and for decades denials were issued insisting that there was no linkage between the game of football and CTE.

But as reported in a recent article in the New York Times (March 16), during testimony before Congress, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, when asked about the connection between the game and CTE, said, “The answer is certainly yes.”

This represented a momentous turnaround for the league, which had been accused by former players, their families, and experts of having in their possession the science that indisputably made the linkage between cumulative head trauma and CTE but failed to make full disclosure of this data to the players.

During that same congressional hearing, Dr. Ann McKee presented postmortem evidence showing that dozens of former players had been afflicted with CTE, affirming the initial work of Dr. Omalu.

Miller’s admission stated that the NFL now accepted the science. Keep in mind that the league had spent millions of dollars on experts attempting to argue the opposite point of view, following in the footsteps of Big Tobacco. In 2007, for example, Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, was quoted opining that a player diagnosed with CTE could have developed the disease swimming. “A concussion can happen in a variety of different activities.” Just before the last Super Bowl, Goodell stated, “There’s risks in life. There’s risks sitting at home on the couch.”

But now that the linkage has been openly acknowledged — the NFL had entered into an agreement as of 2015 with those players who had sued the league for failure to disclose the known risks of repeated concussions — the league has effectively insulated itself from all claims going forward. Miller’s statement tells the players that hence forth, they play at their own risk of CTE.

For decades organized tackle football — from Pop Warner to college — has taken its direction from the NFL’s position on traumatic head injuries. What will now take place at the lower levels will be interesting, especially for the younger players (Pop Warner and high school) whose brains are still developing. Concussions, no matter how mild, are cumulative. Some never rise to the standard of “having your bell rung,” and can often be asymptomatic, meaning an absence of confusion, headaches and an inability to concentrate. And yet they occur repeatedly in a sport that involves high impact.

With the science no longer challenged by the NFL, what will be the response of high schools and peewee leagues regarding those who are the most vulnerable?

High school players walk onto the field feeling invincible, the warriors, prepared for battle, surrounded by cheering crowds, brass bands and a rising tide of approbation. Yet they are at risk of damage that goes well beyond a wrenched knee or a broken leg.

And though the aches and pains of an afternoon game will pass, a wrenched knee will heal, the concussive damage done to the brain will not.

Now it’s up to the parents and school administrations to decide if young athletes should suit up to play a game that exacts a high price.

Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.