The doctor portrayed in the 2015 movie “Concussion” repeated his conclusion Wednesday that kids younger than 18 should not play football and other high-impact sports.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, who battled with the National Football League after discovering signs of a dementia-causing disease in the brain of a deceased NFL player, was the keynote speaker at the Better Business Bureau’s 21st annual Integrity Awards luncheon at the Embassy Suites in La Vista.
Clete Blakeman, an Omaha personal injury attorney and veteran NFL referee, served as the event’s honorary chairman and introduced Omalu, calling him a “game-changer” who stood up for the truth and showed “real, true moral courage,” persisting even when he was ridiculed for his findings.
Blakeman, whose physique earned him the label the “hot ref” after he served as lead official in this year’s Super Bowl, noted that the theme for the event was “Courage Under Fire.” The BBB’s awards are intended to promote the importance of ethical business practices and recognize local organizations’ commitment to them.
Omalu, played in the movie by actor Will Smith, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece weeks before the movie was released that kids under 18 have not reached the age of consent and should not play football, hockey and other such sports.
He repeated his conclusion Wednesday, saying there was no justification for children under age 18 to play high-impact sports. He said he will not let his own young son play football. “It damages your child’s brain, yet America keeps quiet because money is involved,” he said.
However, other researchers have noted that there is scant science to back up Omalu’s statements regarding age limits for contact sports. Researchers also have said the science is far from settled when it comes to the relationship among concussions, football and chronic neurodegenerative disease.
On Wednesday evening, a panel of local experts discussed the diagnosis and treatment of concussions and the resources available for concussed athletes and their families at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha.
Dr. Kody Moffatt, director of the pediatric sports medicine program at Children’s, said Omalu’s statements go beyond the latest recommendations on kids and tackle football from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Moffatt served on the panel that wrote the recommendations, released in October 2015.
Moffatt also tempered another of Omalu’s assertions. Omalu, he said, suggests that one concussion can change a child forever. “I think it can, certainly, but does it change everybody? Not likely,” Moffatt said.
Parents and others also have to look at the benefits that sports offer — practice in leadership and teamwork as well as the benefits of physical fitness. “Yes, the risk is there for concussions,” he said, “but the benefits of the sports are there, too.”
He and others stressed that it’s important to make sure young people, parents, coaches and others recognize the symptoms of concussions and to make sure those who suffer them recover before returning to play — and to the classroom. Nebraska law requires that schools provide parents and athletes with information about concussions. Athletes suspected of having concussions must be removed from play and can’t return without signed releases from a licensed health professional and a parent. Schools also must accommodate kids who suffer concussions in the classroom.
“If we can get young people to recognize what happened, we’ll get them back sooner and decrease the risk of really bad things happening,” Moffatt said.
Peggy Reisher, executive director of the Brain Injury Alliance of Nebraska, said the group will continue to work to make information about concussions available to anyone who wants it.
During his talk, Omalu stressed the importance of standing up for the truth and the dangers of what he called “conformational thinking,” in which our thinking is controlled by expectations, norms and traditions. “You become embedded in a way of thinking ... you don’t even question.”
If he’d grown up in America, he said, he may never have autopsied Mike Webster.
Omalu, a forensic pathologist, arrived at a Pittsburgh coroner’s office one Saturday morning in September 2002 to find the storied Pittsburgh Steeler’s body awaiting him. Webster had died after a heart attack, but Omalu had heard reports about his recent erratic behavior and sought answers.
At the time, Omalu, born in Nigeria in 1968 during civil war, knew little about football. Omalu’s family lived as refugees, his town under frequent fire by the Nigerian Air Force. Omalu, who is writing a memoir, attended medical school at age 15 and became a physician at 21.
Omalu found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in Webster’s brain and, later, in eight more NFL players, as well as in professional wrestlers and military veterans.
The NFL initially fought his study. But the league since has paid $765 million to settle a lawsuit filed by former players alleging that the NFL concealed the dangers of head trauma.
“The truth will always prevail,” Omalu said. “It may take a long time to come, but the truth will prevail.”
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BBB’s Integrity Awards
The BBB presented a series of awards to local businesses and charities Wednesday. Its 2016 Integrity Awards went to applicants in two categories, charities and for-profit businesses.
» RESPECT and Midlands Mentoring Partnership received Integrity awards for charities with 24 or fewer employees; the Visiting Nurse Association was recognized among those with 25 or more employees.
» The for-profit businesses that were presented with BBB Integrity Awards are: Bel Air Fashions (1-4 employees), Husker Hammer Siding, Windows and Roofing (5-10 employees), Turner Technology (11-24 employees), Arbor Bank (25-99 employees), McKinnis Inc. (100-249 employees) and NP Dodge Co. (550 or more employees).
» “Silver Awards of Distinction” went to Business Ventures LLC; FirstLight Home Care; Silver Hammer CARSTAR & Northwest CARSTAR; ACCESSbank; Midwest Eye Care PC; Pinnacle Bank; Gordmans Inc.; and One World Community Health Centers Inc.
» The Harry A. Koch Co. received a “Bronze Award of Merit.”
» The Omaha World-Herald Co. was recognized as an inaugural accredited business, with 80 years’ accreditation. The company joined in 1936, the same year the organization formed.