Last week, I had the opportunity to watch the Boston premiere of Concussion with other sports medicine specialists from coast to coast.
The movie depicts the controversial story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith, who performed brain biopsies on former NFL players and discovered neurological deterioration due to repeated head injuries. He published his findings in a medical journal to raise awareness about the dangers of football-related head trauma.
I recently spoke with 1590 WAKR Average Sports Show host Aaron Coleman about this movie and hot topic. We also discussed how increased concussion awareness is affecting parents’ decision to enter their kids in youth football programs and what needs to be done to save America’s favorite pastime.
Below is an audio file and transcript of our discussion.
COLEMAN: Alright. We’re gonna hop to the phones right now. We’re gonna speak with our good friend, Dr. Joe Congeni, director of Sports Medicine at Akron Children’s Hospital. Dr. Joe, how are you doing this evening?
DR. CONGENI: I’m doin’ good, Aaron. How are you doing today?
COLEMAN: I’m doin’ great.
COLEMAN: … You saw Concussion. You saw the premiere and, uh, everything and you were involved in that. What were your thoughts about the movie? What were your thoughts in the betrayal [and] events that took place as it relates to, uh, Dr. Bennett Omalu’s story?
DR. CONGENI: Well, it was really cool. I mean, the whole thing about getting invited to be in Boston. It was a medical premiere or preview, and there were people from 16 different states that were there that had … so many different specialties related to the field of concussion. And, the author and, you know, good friend of Bennett Omalu was there.
Dr. Omalu’s story is told in the movie and now it’s out where people would be able to get the chance to see it. I thought it was a very, very powerful portrayal. I think probably — I hear the debate going back and forth now — it was exaggerated a little bit, I use the word amplified a little bit. You know, maybe trumped up. I think that’s what we do with movies sometimes.
But overall, Dr. Omalu’s story is really pretty compelling, and weaving it together with the issues related to what is such a complex problem, probably, you know, one of the top issues in medicine, top 2 or 3 medical issues that we’re still grappling with with concussion.
The way that story happens is a guy who comes to this country, really knows nothing much about the NFL or what [big business] he’s up against and … how much this country loves and is passionate about the sport of football, finds something that’s really very concerning. And, even to this day that study continues to go on as we look at different people with these brain injuries as recent as a year or so … ago.
The Dave Duerson thing, the Junior Seau thing (former NFL stars), as we see more and more people with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. What do all these multiple hits that occur to players [mean]? What ends up happening to them?
Well, in a handful of these cases where we’ve studied the brains of some of these guys, it’s really kind of a frightening thing where the brain is in a totally disorganized state. You can’t tell when you look at the brain pathologically after people die, but when you look at it under the microscope you see this totally disorganized pattern of brain cells called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Dr. Omalu was the first one who found this. He was at the University of Pittsburgh at the time and he found it in a couple of the old Steelers’ players, and it really led to what is now a pretty big study and a lot of other things … with us trying to prevent this problem known as concussion.
COLEMAN: Yeah, Justin Strzelczyk and, uh, Hall of Famer Mike Webster were 2 of the, uh, players that he had studied from the, uh, Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, the NFL had attacked this study and, uh, Dr. Omalu had to kind of circle the wagons and kind of prove some things and do some other things.
Um, do you feel that this film raises awareness for parents who are … thinking about getting their kids signed up for football? And, do you think that more will be done with head trauma moving forward?
DR. CONGENI: Now, those are 2 tough questions, Aaron, and I think you know No. 1 no question, it’s gonna affect parents. I mean, I looked at it through many different lenses. I looked at it from the lens of being a parent myself and it is concerning, uh, no question about it.
However, most of these, you know, as people discussed this afterwards, most of these cases are not occurring in young kids that played youth football. They’re not occurring in kids who played just high school football. It’s people that have had long-term, repetitive, you know, consistent, uh, brain trauma, brain trauma, brain trauma … over a longer period of time. But still, it’s concerning.
We know already that the number of kids who play youth football, like Pop Warner and USA Football, have gone down the last few years and this may continue to contribute to more and more parents saying I just don’t want my kids to play.
Now, you know, afterwards when we had a meeting with a lot of the medical people that were there, [we discussed] we’re having bigger problems in sports like soccer and lacrosse and even basketball. [They] are having significant increases in concussion in those sports, as well.
So, it isn’t just a football thing, but of course, football is America’s passion and football is the sport that we found this. I mean, we wouldn’t have known if we didn’t have this scientific data right in front of us that Dr. Omalu found with the brain biopsies. So, yes, I think it is gonna affect parents as they try to make that decision.
And, yes, the answer to the 2nd question is yes, too. I think we’re redoubling our efforts, I mean, I think we have a full-court press going now. There’s a lot of good research going on.
There’s a lot of people trying to work through technology to come up with better technology to tell us more about concussions so that we can … pick them up earlier, you know, diagnose them better, uh, treat them better. Not rush somebody back to the field when the brain hasn’t fully recovered. So, there’s a lot of good technology out there.
You know, we’re trying to get more people on the field that are aware of this like athletic trainers at youth sporting events so we can make good diagnoses of when a young athlete is concussed.
So, yes, I think there’s a lot of effort in the area of, you know, scientific research. In every way, [we’re trying] to leave no stone unturned and redouble our efforts to make the sport safer, but the question is, “Is there only so far we can go?” And, we don’t know the answer to that yet.
COLEMAN: Yeah, it’s definitely true. One of the questions that, uh, I ask myself, one of the questions that other people have asked me, as well, and I’m sure they’ve asked you this, “Is the game itself, is the sport of football itself going to change in 5, 10, 20, 25 years?” I mean, that’s one of the big questions that a lot of people are asking right now.
DR. CONGENI: Well, people ask me that question, Aaron, for sure on almost a daily basis, but they also even go further and they ask me the questions, “Will football still be around when my kids have kids, you know, when my kids are parents?” and “In 10 or 15 years, will there even be football?”
I mean, if the numbers continue to drop of kids in youth [football], where are the kids gonna come from that play high school and then where are the kids gonna come from that play, you know, college?
I mean, can you imagine the day that a stadium like, uh, you know, the Horseshoe would sit empty every Saturday when you know right now that’s the center of campus life at places like Ohio State and Notre Dame and Michigan State? …
So, yeah, I think that is the question, “Will it still be there? Will it change?” So, yes, I think changes are necessary. I mean, I’m really heartened by the fact that probably the biggest rules change that helped the most was the kickoff rule, where we moved the kickoff up.
In the NFL, 82 percent of kickoffs went in the End Zone, so you know there are not as many returns. And, the No. 1 most common injury play is the kickoff, where people have a 40-yard head start running down the field.
DR. CONGENI: And so, yeah, I think people are thinking on a daily basis of rules changes, training changes, practice changes. You know all the rules that changed in the last 2 or 3 years from youth to high school to college to the pros. So, there are changes, and I think they’ll be changes in the game.
A lot of people are really resistant to a lot of these changes, but, geez, I think we have to look at it like, you know, will there still be the game at all? We have to make good changes, uh, that make the game still competitive and good, but also, um, you know, save the game. I mean, we’re to the point of where we’re really looking to save the game of football.
COLEMAN: Yeah, I definitely see that.
DR. CONGENI: We need to come up with a couple of other good ideas. Many things are being discussed right now, other good things that are changes that are going to protect the brains and in that case, protect the neck. Those are the 2 things that worry you as a parent, head and neck injuries.
I mean, extremity injuries can be fixed or whatever, you don’t worry as much. Hey, you might have arthritis later in life from an injury that you had to an arm or a leg, but we’re trying to save the brain and also protect the neck in young athletes and make the game safer. And so, without question we’re looking for people to be as creative as possible of coming up with ways to make it safer.
The hardest thing people tell us all the time, Aaron, is they tell us, you know, you have to try to change the culture of football. And so, that is not lead with the helmet, but we’re so far down that road.
When you watch games almost everybody leads with the head, and I’ve talked to a lot of high school players and they say that’s just the way the game is played now. They tackle and they block by leading with the head and the helmet.
It’s just very hard … you know, learning to tackle with your shoulder, head up, shoulder tackle, wrap up the, uh, ball carrier and bring him down. You just don’t see that very often, and most everybody leads with the helmet. So as we’ve kinda improved the helmet to try to make it safer, we’ve actually made it a better weapon to lead with in the sport.
And so, I just don’t know exactly how we can, uh, you know, change that culture of leading with the head. If we could do that I think we’d be much better off and we’re trying to come up with ways. There are a whole lot of people working on it right now.
So, yes, I’d say there’s a full-court press of people out there trying to get ideas and technology to make the game safer in any way we possibly can.
COLEMAN: Aaron Coleman here with Dr. Joe Congeni, director of Sports Medicine at Akron Children’s Hospital, on the Average Sports Show, 1590 WAKR Akron.
Originally aired on 1590 WAKR-AM on Dec. 29, 2015