Dr. Bennet Omalu: CTE obsession obscuring truth about brain health of football players

The man who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is concerned that recent attention given to the condition has obscured a larger truth about the brain health of football players.

"There has been so much fascination with CTE that we are going the wrong way," Dr. Bennet Omalu said. "CTE is just one disease in a spectrum of many diseases caused by brain trauma. If he doesn't have CTE, that doesn't mean he doesn't have brain damage. ... I've always said that every child who plays football has a 100 percent risk of exposure to brain damage. And I've always said that at a professional level, 100 percent would have brain damage of some kind to some degree. That's whether or not their brains are found to have CTE."

Omalu spoke Friday morning from his home as part of a promotional interview for his book, "Truth Doesn't Have a Side," to be published next week. A forensic pathologist, Omalu first identified CTE during an autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002. The diagnosis -- and the strong denials of a football connection from the NFL -- were chronicled in the 2015 movie "Concussion."

Last month, researchers at a Boston brain bank studied 202 brains donated by the families of deceased football players at all levels. Nearly 90 percent were found to have CTE to some degree, including 110 of 111 NFL players.

The study did not attempt to compare the results to the general population or even to a cross-section of other players. But Omalu, who was not affiliated with the study, said concerns about what could be concluded about CTE misses the point. Even a negative CTE result, Omalu said, does not mean a player's brain remained unscathed while playing football.

"There is no such thing as a safe blow to the head," he said. "And then when you have repeated blows to your head, it increases the risk of permanent brain damage. Once you start having hundreds or thousands of blows, there is a 100 percent risk of exposure to permanent brain damage. The brain does not have a reasonable capacity to regenerate. This is something we have always known."

The NFL committed $100 million in 2016 to brain research, but commissioner Roger Goodell said as recently as this week that there are "an awful lot more questions than there are answers" about the connection between CTE and football. Omalu did not target the NFL, either in his book or Friday's interview, and appealed instead to parents to advocate better for the health of football players.

"I don't attack the NFL," Omalu said. "I shouldn't. The NFL is a corporation. This is a free market. What do corporations do? They try to make money by selling a product or service. The NFL is not in the business of health care. It is not a research organization. If you think the NFL is not doing anything, well, what do you expect? They are in the business of making money. The issue is parents."

Omalu said parents must ask themselves a question: "Do I love football more than I love my child?"

He added: "I wouldn't let my children engage in an activity that has a very strong probability of undermining their intellectual development. Why would I do that to my child?"

Omalu compared the dilemma to a man who is told that his wife has cheated on him.

"He might deny it because he loves this woman," Omalu said. "He might think there is no way it is true. Eventually he accepts that it happened. I think that's what America is experiencing now. America is in love with football but is struggling with its truth. But just like the man in love, give him time."