BOSTON In the trailer for the movie “Concussion,” star Will Smith says: “I found a disease that no one has ever seen.”
It’s a claim the real-life doctor portrayed by Smith, forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, has himself made for years, giving a detailed description about how he came to name that disease “chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”
But Omalu neither discovered the disease nor named it, according to scientific journals and brain researchers who were interviewed by The Associated Press. And though no one doubts that Omalu’s diagnosis of Pittsburgh Steelers centre Mike Webster was pivotal in understanding the dangers of football, fellow researchers and a medical ethicist say Omalu goes too far when he publicly takes credit for naming or discovering CTE.
“It’s just not true, and I think he knows that,” said William Stewart, a neuropathologist at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, Scotland.
“Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been around for decades. It’s not a new term,” Stewart said. “The only thing I would say that Bennet has done is that he identified it in an American footballer.”
Omalu did not respond to an email or telephone message seeking clarification of his claims. Sony Pictures, which is releasing the film on Christmas Day, issued a statement on Thursday that did not address the conflicts between his public statements and the medical literature.
“Football’s head injury crisis continues to rage with competing interests and agendas, so it is not surprising that there are those that are still trying to undermine Dr. Omalu’s work,” Sony Pictures spokeswoman Jean Guerin said. “What is beyond dispute is that Dr. Omalu’s discovery shined a light on a reality that the NFL ignored for too long and continues to play out every Sunday.”
With its marquee star and holiday release, “Concussion” is certain to revive that debate. Dozens of former football players have been posthumously diagnosed with CTE after descending into lives of depression, alcohol or drug abuse, violent behaviour and even suicide.
Also beyond dispute is the personal struggle Omalu went through after the NFL sought to discredit his research rather than confront the threat to long-term health of its players.
But the new complaints about Omalu are not from the league and its supporters, they come from fellow researchers who say he is claiming credit that should properly go to others. While they are willing to write off scenes in the movie as Hollywood flair ‚Äî in one, Omalu is explicitly encouraged by another pathologist to name the disease ‚Äî his own statements show it is not just an issue with the script.
In a 2013 talk that is viewable on YouTube, Omalu claims he came up with the name CTE after discovering the disease in Webster’s brain: “I said to myself ... you need to give it a name. You need to give it a sexy name. You need to give it a name that has a good acronym that people will remember, even a 3-year-old kid would remember. That is how ‘CTE’ came about.”
In the PBS documentary “League of Denial,” Omalu also claims credit for discovering and naming the disease.
“Name it a disease; give it a name. Present it as a disease; package it,” he said, explaining that he had taken a class in business school where they discussed how to create brand equity. “’Chronic’ means long-term. ‘Traumatic’ means it’s associated with trauma. ‘Encephalopathy’ means a bad brain. So I had both ends covered.”
At the time of Webster’s autopsy, though, the disease had been known ‚Äî and known by that name ‚Äî for decades.
Originally studied in boxers in the 1920s as dementia pugilistica, the seminal work on the disease came from British neurologist Macdonald Critchley, who in 1949 wrote a paper entitled: “Punch-drunk syndromes: the chronic traumatic encephalopathy of boxers.”
By Webster’s death on Sept. 24, 2002, the disease had been diagnosed not just in boxers but in rugby and soccer players, epileptics and others with illnesses that resulted in head-banging, and an alcoholic circus clown who was knocked unconscious a dozen times as the subject of a dwarf-tossing routine.
“(Omalu) must know that this pathology existed for many decades before,” Stewart said. “Otherwise he wouldn’t know what to be looking for.”
Some researchers in the field were hesitant to publicly criticize a colleague. Arthur Caplan, the director of medical ethics at the NYU school of medicine, said exaggerating one’s contributions is “troubled,” but not enough to disqualify the underlying research.
“It would be unethical not to acknowledge the work that came before. It’s certainly un-collegial,” Caplan said. “If you’re building on the work of others, you have to credit them. That’s the expected thing to do. You could certainly say, ‘I took the ball further down the field.’ But you certainly don’t say, ‘There’s nothing, and then I appeared.’”
What’s not in dispute is that the Webster autopsy and the ensuing attention Omalu’s diagnosis received did in fact serve as the catalyst for doctors, sports officials and media to begin treating concussions as a serious health risk.
Most sports leagues from the NFL to youth soccer now have concussion protocols that had never been contemplated before Omalu ‚Äî and, to be sure, other brain researchers ‚Äî began publicizing the often devastating tales of life with the battery of symptoms generally known as post-concussion syndrome.
“That’s when it started taking traction, when it was noted in professional football players,” said Barry Jordan, the chief medical officer for the New York State Athletic Commission and an Associate Professor of Clinical Neurology at Cornell’s Weill Medical College. “That in and of itself was monumental.”
And that’s why, Caplan said, the NFL is unlikely to get a reprieve from any dents in Omalu’s reputation.
“I think it’s more an internal, ethical issue for scientific research. It isn’t that anything’s wrong or falsified,” he said. “All it shows is that the NFL potentially had more reason to be concerned about this because there was research in the literature before he showed up.”