Rest In Peace, Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant and his 13-year old daughter died yesterday in a helicopter crash in California.  There were nine people aboard; there were no survivors.

Stare con gli angeli, Kobe Bryant.  Rest in peace…

Will Hobson had a report in the Washington Post that qualifies as a “takedown piece”.  The subject of his report was Dr. Bennet Omalu – the author of the book, Concussion, and the self-proclaimed discoverer and namer of CTE.  Dr. Omalu has built a reputation and following based on his study of CTE particularly in former athletes.  All studies have been ex post facto based on examination of the brain in a deceased athlete; to date, there is no predictive measure nor is there a clear distinction between the effects of CTE and age-based dementia in many victims.

Hobson points out that Dr. Omalu seems to have played loose with facts and claims in building his reputation as the “go-to-guy” in matters related to CTE.  More importantly, some of his works and pronouncements have the ring of pseudoscience surrounding them:

  • Other researchers, using the same brain samples, do not always concur with Dr. Omalu’s diagnoses of CTE.  One other pathologist said, “…if people were actually following [Omalu’s] criteria, the prevalence of this disease would be enormous, and there’s absolutely no evidence to support that.”
  • When presented with opposing views from other researchers in the field, Dr. Omalu’s response is that they are comments from doctors seeking “cheap and bogus popularity” and who are in cahoots with sports organizations who seek to suppress his message.  Omalu also accuses the media for promulgating all that stuff as “Fake News”.

Dr. Omalu became famous enough to have a movie made about him; Will Smith played Dr. Omalu in the movie, Concussion, based on the book of the same name.  Part of that fame grew out of the vehemence of the NFL’s opposition to his work.  Just as Dr. Omalu may have exaggerated some of his findings and claims, the NFL was far too ready to assert that playing football had no deleterious effects on the human brain.  As a person whose education was focused on the physical sciences, I have been skeptical about the breadth of many of Dr. Omalu’s pronouncements. At one point he said something to the effect that kids who play contact sports in school such as football or hockey or wrestling are more likely to drop out of school, become addicted to drugs, commit violent crimes and commit suicide than the rest of the school population.

That is a paraphrase and not a quotation; there are no quotation marks there.  But that kind of assertion makes me stop and ask myself the kinds of questions that I would ask when presented with new information related to my field of study:

  • Does that make intuitive sense?
  • If true, would head trauma in those sports be the only – or even the most prevalent – factor in such outcomes?
  • What are the controls for the research done to collect the data that lead to such a conclusion?
  • How large might the sample size have to be?

Notwithstanding Dr. Omalu’s current assessment that the media promulgates “Fake News” about him, he was once a media darling.  I believe he attained that status because he fit with an anti-football narrative that was very popular and prevalent at the time.  [The movie about Dr. Omalu came out about the same time that there was a dip in NFL TV ratings and the prevailing narrative was that football was in decline because mothers would not allow their children to play a sport destined to destroy their lives.  The timing was most convenient.]  Dr. Omalu’s rise to fame came with his examination of and reporting on the cerebral pathology of Pittsburgh Steelers’ center, Mike Webster who died in his 50s having dealt with major health problems related to brain damage.  Since his findings there and his findings about CTE in other cases – many of which have not been replicated by other researchers – CTE has been cited as a factor for:

  • Aaron Hernandez committing several murders
  • Junior Seau committing suicide

[I will not be surprised to see someone speculate that Antonio Brown’s aberrant behavior over the past year or so is caused by CTE.]

Dr. Omalu has said that every NFL player has CTE to some degree.  [Recall, other researchers say his criteria are so broad that almost anyone can be diagnosed with CTE.]  That has been the assertion that always rang discordant with me.  Indeed, there are former NFL players who suffer as their age advances such as Lyle Alzedo or Mike Webster.  At the same time there are too many former NFL players who were in the game for a long time taking plenty of blows to the head who age just like most of the adults that I see as my family, friends and neighbors every day.  Those people occupy the studio host position on networks televising NFL games and the broadcasting booth as color analysts.  Terry Bradshaw, Boomer Esiason, Howie Long, Phil Simms and Steve Young are all about 60 years old – or more in the case of Bradshaw – and none of them present with any indication of senility or dementia.  Moreover, Young retired from the game because of concussion issues and Esiason once had a concussion in a game that kept him out for 6 weeks.

The final portion of the report in the Washington Post linked to here takes my skepticism about Dr. Omalu’s research and findings to the level of disbelief.  There was a lawsuit in Pennsylvania where Dr. Omalu’s expert testimony was dismissed by the judge in the case as “unreliable”.  Dr. Omalu’s explanation for that circumstance was that the judge was from Pittsburgh and probably an NFL fan.

Finally, let me close with a definition from The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm that seems appropriate for today:

Senile:  A word whose definition you will no longer be able to recall by the time it applies to you.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………