Mike Webster, Steelers Center, photo by NFL Mike Webster, Steelers Center. Photo: NFL

CTE and the NFL
Gary Jordan on the brain damage epidemic that gridiron football must deal with

Dr Bennet Omalu is a spiritual man, a Catholic man, who believes in life after death. He practices his skill in forensic pathology in a very methodical way with an open approach to each case he has. On the day of Mike Webster's autopsy in the fall of 2002 Dr Omalu's, and many others', life changed.

Mike Webster died in September 2002, aged 50. The Hall of Famer played Center for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their Dynasty period in the 1970,s and left them in 1988 for a brief stint in Kansas City. He will always be known as a Steeler, but despite all of his illustrious career landmarks he is now known as the first player to be diagnosed with CTE which was the main contributor in his untimely passing.

Chronic Traumatic Encethalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease, commonly linked with Alzheimer's. Omalu knew upon first examination of Webster that what he was dealing with would shake the halls of the National Football League's New York offices.

Although Mike Webster's death was sudden he had suffered for years with several ailments including mood swings and depression. Dr.Omalu was called for duty like any other normal day, and wasn't aware of who and how important Webster was when he approached the operating table. After initial observation Omalu wanted to explore further in what he had found, and this is where CTE came into play. Something at the time that was largely reserved for boxers, CTE is caused by repeated blows to the head. Playing Center in the NFL for the best part of two decades you are sure to get an increased amount of activity in this region of the body.

Omalu's findings were extraordinary, in 2005 he produced a paper and presented it to the NFL in the hope that the League's own Doctors would examine it and use it as a base for their own studies. Unfortunately the NFL did not take much action at first and this was to be very detrimental in the long run. Omalu found help through Julian Bailes, a concussion researcher and together they published another paper in 2006. They had other findings of CTE in high profile players such as Terry Long and Andre Waters.

Only in 2009, seven years after Omalu's first report did the NFL and its Commissioner Roger Goodell admit to a link between the concussion injuries and CTE. This was after the League was called before Congress in October of that year, leading to a comprehensive overhaul of the League's concussion policy a month later.

However this led to many ex-players who had similar health problems to those which Webster and others had suffered in the lead up to their death taking legal cases to court. Ray Easterling of the Falcons, Junior Seau (famous from his days at the Chargers), and Dave Duerson formerly of the Bears all committed suicide during 2012. Their autopsies revealed CTE was very evident. The NFL was being accused of neglect and there were almost 3,500 cases to hear.

Part of the plan for the future was to have independent neurologists at each and every game, each team would be given a consultant on the sideline and would implement a four-stage protocol before returning players to the field, if that was deemed possible. Rule changes were also introduced such as a ball carrier or tackler not being able to initiate contact with the crown of their helmet whilst outside the "tackle box". With its reputation for looking after its players and millions of dollars at stake it was the very least the League could do in reaction to the CTE links. For many though it's a case of too little, too late.

Of course it's the high profile world of the NFL that is taking the lion's share of the blame but the roots go further and players are often hitting and being hit hard from an early age. Through High School and College, as well as countless days' practice they will incur blows to the head. For the majority the rewards will always outweigh the risks. For the youngsters looking to emulate their idols the game is fun, take away the hits you take away the essence of the game. In College you are in the minority should you make it through the annual Draft selection and into the Pro game. To do this you will have gone through up to as many as three seasons in the NCAA. At this age an athlete's body is being groomed into a finely tuned weapon, as well as going through the latter stages of its natural growth. Of course the last decade has made people more aware of the health issues, yes they were always underlying but when you're young and hungry for success you put those thoughts to the back of your mind.

The rewards are great should you be one of the few that make the NFL grade. Fame, wealth, but at what cost a decade or so down the line?

Dr. Omalu spoke of how he fears for the future of players even though preventative measures are being put in place. In a 2013 interview with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk he said "There has not been one NFL player I've examined that did not have CTE. In active players that have played through High School, College, each and every one of them, in my opinion, has a certain degree of brain damage. CTE is progressive. The longer they live, the more advanced the disease becomes."

The debate about CTE will not go away. For the families of those that have lost their lives early it is a constant reminder that the sport they love to play and watch has a dark side. What now matters is how the collective American Football governance manages to tackle the problem. On this occasion it does need to be head on.

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