AFL

CTE authority likens Australian footy codes to 'gladiatorial sports in ancient Rome'

The doctor who made game-changing discoveries about dead, brain-damaged American footballers has likened Australia's football codes to "gladiatorial sports in ancient Rome".

Dr Bennet Omalu, the first to find chronic traumatic encephalopathy in former National Football League players, says sport chiefs and fans globally remain deluded on the topic.

Forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr Bennet Omalu.
Forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr Bennet Omalu. Photo: Getty Images

In the aftermath of this week's Super Bowl, Omalu told Fairfax Media that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell remains, in his view, a denialist "suffering" from what he terms "conformational intelligence". In Omalu's opinion, this leaves footballers of all ages unnecessarily exposed to high risk.

Omalu is convinced children should only play drastically modified versions of American football, soccer, and Australia's most popular games of Australian football and rugby league before they turn 18.

The forensic pathologist describes sport's increasingly documented problem with not only concussions, but all manner of dangerous body blows, as a "pandemic".

"Goodell is a commissioner of an organisation that is making money from football. So his intelligence is conforming to the expectations of that group," Omalu said.

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"Sometimes this is what people call conflict of interest, but I think it's deeper than conflict of interest. It is what I call conformational intelligence, whereby you're a member of a group … and the expectations of that group can take over your intelligence, and your intuition, and your intellect, and control it. That is what he [Goodell] is suffering from.

"Goodell is suffering and so are the NFL doctors that are denying that there is no link between football and brain damage.

"Let me tell you this is a very well established principle of medicine … it is a fundamental truth [that] … in every human activity, when you expose the human brain to repeated blows, there is a reasonable risk of permanent brain damage."

The NFL agreed to a $US1 billion so-called "concussion settlement" last April after a class action by former players and their families. 

Goodell has been criticised in recent days for his response to questioning about health risks and the game, given during the annual state-of-the-league address. His observation that "there's risks in sitting on the couch" was not well received.

From the time of Omalu's ground-breaking, initially self-funded, discovery of CTE in the brain of "Iron" Mike Webster – made through the autopsy he performed on the former Pittsburgh Steelers star in 2002 – he has been ostracised by the NFL.

Omalu also found evidence of CTE in the brains of former NFL players Justin Strzelczyk (dead at age 36), Andrew Waters (dead at 44) and Tom McHale (dead at 45).

Now the subject of the film Concussion, which premieres in Australia this week, Omalu is depicted as a humble pioneer who stared down intimidation from authorities, including the FBI and NFL.

"I always emphasise that I'm not anti-football," he said this week.

"But I stand for intelligent football, 21st century football. We need to begin to think of more intelligent and more brain-friendly way we can continue to play these games.

"These are meant to be games. They are meant to be recreational … but these games, rather than re-creating, are actually damaging us as human beings."

Omalu told Fairfax he has watched AFL and NRL on satellite television: "My impression? Those sports remind me of the gladiatorial sports in ancient Rome." Given heavy body contact is a feature of both codes, he categorises them similarly to American football.

Omalu's opinion is that no one under the age of 18 should play games without rules that forbid all manner of heavy knocks that can culminate, over time, in brain damage. His position is based on the scientifically proven fact that brains remain unformed until that age.

"Papers that came out this month alone, scientific papers, have shown that if you suffer one concussion, just one, as a child, that you are about 16 times more likely to commit suicide as an adult," he said.

"Papers that have come out last year have shown that, as a child, the younger you are when you begin to suffer exposure to brain trauma – with or without concussions – the greater the likelihood that you cannot attain your God-given intellectual capacity."

CTE is described as having a strangling effect on the human brain. A by-product of repeated head and body blows, it is caused by a build-up of a protein named tau that essentially overtakes healthy cells.

Before his death, at age 50, former Pittsburgh star Webster disintegrated to a substance-abusing shell of his former self. Concussion depicts vividly how he became a violent, homeless person who resorted to using super glue to mend his dislodged teeth. Omalu, who is played by Will Smith, was convinced this would not have happened without a significant reason.