Sacking Dr. Omalu

The continuing story of Dr. David Chao, team physician for the San Diego Chargers, plays out like a bad comedy. This time, he was exposed as part of the effort to undermine the work of the man whose research discovered the disease of the brain that is caused by repeated trauma - Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. That man is Dr. Bennet Omalu

I appreciate that the postmortem exam of Junior Seau's brain, as performed by the National Institute of Health, did show signs of TBI and CTE. I’m glad that has been settled.

What I don't care for is that the NFL, via Dr. Chao, informed Seau's family that a member of the San Diego Medical Examiner's office, Dr. Omalu - the man who discovered, described, and named Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy [CTE] as a disease entity in football players and wrestlers - was described to Tyler Seau, Junior’s son, as an unethical person, a bad researcher, and a bad doctor.

According to the PBS show Frontline, this was what happened just as Omalu was placing the first half of Seau’s brain into a special container - referred to as a ‘brain briefcase’ - so that Omalu could do the postmortem dissection:

Seau’s son Tyler had just called, Davis told Omalu and Craig Nelson, the deputy medical examiner.

“I talked to the NFL,” Tyler Seau, then 22, told the chaplain. The league, he said, informed him that Omalu’s “research is bad and his ethics are bad.” Tyler was in a rage. Omalu “is not to be in the same f—ing room as my dad!” he screamed. “He’s not to f—ing touch my dad! He’s not to have anything to do with my dad!”

What could have sent Tyler into such a fury? Why did he believe that Omalu was an unethical doctor - a provably false accusation - whose research was invalid? This happened seven years after the initial research on CTE was published. Had anyone ever found evidence that contradicted it? No. Actually, Omalu’s research has been shown to be accurate by multiple sources. The NFL just has a long memory - and a smear campaign to go with it.

When Omalu first published his research in July of 2005, the NFL immediately attacked him with a vengeance. The bought-and-paid-for doctors on the NFL’s Head Neck and Spine Committee (the heads of which were fired after Congress called Roger Goodell on the carpet very publicly for the absurdity of the situation) repeatedly have denigrated Omalu in an ad hominem approach, trying to besmirch his research. Co-chairman Ira Casson claimed that there was no evidence that multiple brain injuries (among football players) contributed to long-term cognitive damage, an absurd claim.

How qualified is Dr. Omalu? In addition to being the first to identify CTE itself, he was also the first to identify CTE in the brains of former NFL players, an event that has sent the NFL into paroxysms of vindictive personal and professional attacks on Omalu. This is a doctor who has a laundry list of degrees and awards. Why is the NFL attacking him?

Because he’s telling the truth, which is sometimes a dangerous thing in our culture. This particular truth - the existence of CTE and its presence in NFL players - is at odds with the garbage that the NFL and their pet committee had been ladling out for years. Omalu’s research has been verified in peer-reviewed journals. It’s been confirmed by other independent researchers. It’s rock solid, and it may cost the NFL millions, since over 4,100 players are now part of a lawsuit against the NFL.

That lawsuit is based on the fact that the NFL has consistently tried to deny any link between football and diminished mental capacity and later to CTE, to an extent that has constituted fraud. It has resulted in players not being made aware of the specific dangers in their careers. The fact that we are talking now about concussions in football as a known reality hasn’t been the case for very long. That it is public knowledge and has to be addressed is, in great part, due to the work of Dr. Omalu.  The NFL tried to dismiss that suit on April 9, and the decision on that motion will soon be issued by U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody.

It wasn’t long ago - right about July of 2005, if you need a date - that the league was still denying that such a problem even existed. As someone who has treated mild to moderate brain injuries with good results, and was involved in working with a number of TBI support groups, listening to the league spouting their utter nonsense about how football didn’t cause brain trauma was frustrating at the least. I know what the sufferers of CTE go through. I have a lesser form of brain injury and at times it makes even the simplest tasks difficult. And we’ve known for a long time that repetitive injuries to the brain are cumulative - that’s what the term ‘punch drunk’ refers to in boxing.

I also knew quite a number of doctors, several of them neurologists, who rolled their eyes at the NFL’s stance. There were few, if any, in the medical profession who didn’t know that large, strong, fast men crashing into each other in our modern version of unarmed territorial warfare will have a substantial number of brain injuries, and that they will tend to snowball into more and more severe symptoms over time. There wasn’t anything new in Omalu’s research save this - he’s the man who proved it and put a label on that problem. He also named the disorder. And that’s made him target numero uno on the NFL’s hit list.

The NFL is still attacking Omalu nearly eight years later, and continues to claim that he’s a terrible doctor and researcher. This man has been under the microscope - if those attacks were true, we’d all know about it, because the NFL’s media connections would make sure that we did. They aren’t true. They’re deliberate lies, fabricated and maintained only to try and trash the public’s perception of Dr. Omalu. It demonstrates just how mendacious and vile the league can be. These actions are representative of the attitudes of the league towards its players, ever since the league was founded.

For a long time, the very nature of the job they do kept the players from speaking out on this. Every person who works for a paycheck, no matter how large or small, knows that if they create enough trouble for their employer, their jobs will be in jeopardy. This reality led to Tex Schramm famously snarling at Gene Upshaw, “ We’re the ranchers. You’re the cattle.” (Source - America’s Game, by MIchael MacCambridge). And that’s exactly how the league has seen and treated its players - as if they were nothing more important than farm animals.

Four months after convincing Seau’s son that Dr. Omalu was a quack, and getting the examination of the brain done by their pet group, the NFL handed a check for 30 million dollars to the arm of the National Institute of Health that is allied with the league. If that sounds suspiciously like a bribe, I’m not going to argue with you. The National Institute of Health does a lot of good work, but the acceptance of a huge donation after the league got them Seau’s brain by trashing Dr. Omalu doesn’t have the air of transparency - or professional appropriateness - to it.

While the league is busily attacking the man who discovered CTE, they’re also flatly avoiding taking any action that might save a player’s life in San Diego. Ironically, since Dr. Omalu also practices in that city, Dr. Chao is the team physician for the Chargers. As I’ve noted before, he’s being sued by at least 20 ex-patients since 1998, has been convicted of two DUI's, and was turned down as a state Independent Medical Examiner because he failed to report one of the DUI's.  He’s also the subject of a DEA investigation due to writing excessive prescriptions for painkillers to his addict partner. He’s everything that can be wrong with medicine in one erratic, unprofessional package. 

He tried to prevent an autopsy on Seau and was successful in stopping Dr. Omalu from doing the postmortem work on Seau’s brain. The California Medical Board is trying to pull his license based on his consistently unprofessional and inappropriate conduct. He’s already lost at least one malpractice lawsuit, and he has a long series of them pending. The NFLPA is trying to get him replaced. The team - and the league’s - response? Go scratch. They couldn’t care less. And they won’t - until it costs them money.

It’s important to emphasize that the NIH did find evidence of CTE in Junior Seau’s brain - they haven’t entirely gone the route of the previous incarnation of the NFL’s pet ‘concussion committee’. When the NFL decides out of the goodness of its heart to hand the people who ally with them tens of millions of dollars, though, you’ll have to pardon me if I don’t believe that the relationship between the two is all transparent and above board.

It’s going to be a long struggle to get the league to accept even the most simple directives. Chargers guard Kris Dielman was visibly staggered by a head injury during a game in 2011. The Chargers left him in; Dielman had to retire after the season. Shockingly (sarcasm font), a panel for the NFL and NFLPA gave the team a pass on that one, using the device of stating that AFTER his injury was diagnosed, he received proper care. What never came up was that playing when he was visibly staggering may have exacerbated his condition and should never have happened.

The lack of oversight or responsibility? No big deal.

We’re the ranchers. You’re the cattle.

And even the thought of putting an independent veterinarian - such as a qualified independent neurologist - on the sidelines, an individual who isn’t paid by the team and who would have pulled Dielman immediately - isn’t worth the cost or the effort.

Until someone actually does get killed.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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