Yesterday champion soccer player Brandi Chastain announced that she would be donating her brain to science as part of the ongoing effort to understand the relationship between sports and CTE–Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy–especially in women.
In 2002 the young forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu was doing an autopsy on the former football player Mike Webster and was determined to figure out what had happened to the former Hall of Famer who spent his last years mentally incapacitated–he repaired his rotten teeth with Super Glue and tasered himself to deal with chronic pain. Dr. Omalu’s boss said he could do the study, but it would have to be on his own time and money. “I had to buy my own camera. My own slides. Do the work on my off hours.”
As depicted in the book and the movie, Concussion, where Dr. Omalu is played by Will Smith, Dr. Omalu discovered that the repeated blows to the head during the years Mike Webster played football had caused his problem. CTE has since been diagnosed–which is currently possible only post-mortem–in a number of other ex-football players.
I got to hear Dr. Omalu in person last month at City Arts and Lectures–“our version of football programming around the Superbowl,” said Holly-Walder Wollan of City Arts and Lectures. The very day Dr. Omalu spoke it was announced that Ken Stabler, who had played with the Oakland Raiders had suffered from CTE.
“Any forensic pathologist could have discovered this,” said Dr. Omalu, “but as a foreigner”–he came here to escape the civil war in his native Nigeria–“I am not blinded by the culture of football.”
His outsiders mentality plus his extreme medical credentials–I couldn’t write fast enough to get them all down–gave him a unique perspective to put the pieces together. It is a progressive condition caused at a very basic level in the brain by tau particles, and is distinct from Alzheimer’s Disease which also a degenerative brain disease. Formally called “dementia pugilistica”–because it was first described only in former boxers–Dr. Omalu, as a new American, wanted to have a name that was easy to remember and more broadly accurate, hence, CTE.
Although the very first person person he diagnosed with CTE–which can be done conclusively only at autopsy–was a woman who had been battered for years–“Her name was Florence”–violent activities are more commonly the province of men: hockey players, rodeo riders, boxers, and most notably, football players. And it’s important to note that it is not “just” concussions, but other lesser traumas to the head compound over time.
In soccer it is “headers” that create the most concern. Most famous for scoring the winning goal in the 1999 World Cup match–and the striking shirtless photo after–Chastain said that there was no awareness of the problem when she was young. She would just “shake off” a blow to the head and keep going.
At the brain bank–sponsored by the Veterans Administration and Boston University–where hers will ultimately go….only 7 of the 307 brains for study belong to women. None of them have CTE.
Are women’s brains stronger? More delicate? Ore do we just tend to engage in less dangerous activities?
When the hugely dangerous nature of boxing became apparent, boxing gradually became ever less popular. It used to be more popular than football.
What will it take for football to be really called to account? Does a player have to die on the field, as boxers died the ring?
The problem seemed easier to ignore since they tend to die of the condition many miserable years after the fact.
During the Superbowl…I took a long walk.