PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The movie has it flaws but accurately tells the basic story that Dr. Bennet Omalu and former Pittsburgh Steelers Dr. Julian Bailes uncovered the danger of concussions that rocked the National Football League.
“They didn’t want it to be true, I didn’t want it to be true,” said Bailes. “But as we got more cases, as we began to study more and more brains, it became more obvious, and I think, ultimately, undeniable that that’s what we were dealing with.”
The pivotal event is the death of Steelers’ great Mike Webster and Omalu’s discovery of tangles in Webster’s brain, proteins resulting from concussions causing dementia.
KDKA interviewed Omalu at the University of Pittsburgh after he discovered similar tangles in the autopsies of Terry Long and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Andre Waters.
“We found that Andre Waters’ brain had lost many brain cells and that the brain had accumulated large amounts of abnormal protein,” said Omalu.
Still, the research was met with denial from the league.
“The NFL, their physician leaders certainly resisted, outright denied that this was true, called for a retraction,” Bailes says.
Since then the league has agreed to a $1 billion concussion settlement with its former and current players and is take preventative steps like concussion protocols.
Bailes, who enjoys the contact sport of mixed martial arts, has parted company with Omalu on the issue of youth football.
In a recent New York Times Op Ed piece, Omalu advised parents not to let their kids play.
“And I respectfully disagree with Bennet Omalu on this point. There is no evidence that kids who just play youth sports, like soccer or football, get dementia. That has never been reported,” said Bailes.
Bailes, the medical director for Pop Warner Football and the chair of neurosurgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem, says better equipment, better training on how to tackle and limited contact in practice has greatly reduced the risk to our kids.
“There’s 10 people who drown every day in America, but there’s no call to outlaw swimming. So it’s a balance, and us looking at the risks and benefit to everything we and our kids do,” Bailes said.