CTE stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This disease was first discovered in 2002 by Dr. Bennet Omalu in the brain of former NFL player Mike Webster. Webster was a center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who had been to the Superbowl four times and was nicknamed "Iron Mike." However, after he left the NFL, Webster began exhibiting erratic and strange behavior. He died in September of 2002 from what was initially thought to be a heart attack. Omalu, who was working at the Alleghany County coroner's office, conducted the autopsy. He found the signs of a heart attack, but he had seen the media reports on Webster's behavior prior to his death. Omalu wondered what would had caused Webster to mentally deteriorate so much in his post-football years.
Omalu examined Webster's brain. He found nothing outwardly that indicated anything was wrong, nor did his CT or MRI scans reveal anything unusual. But Omalu persisted. He requested permission from Webster's attorney, Bob Fitzsimmons, to conduct further testing on Webster's brain. He gave the doctor permission to further examine Webster's brain.
Omalu was so determined to find out the cause of Webster's erratic behavior that he worked on the case constantly, even spending his own money on some of the research he was conducting. Finally, he found the cause of Webster's illness. Webster had a significant build up of tau proteins in his brain. This build up was what caused Webster's unstable behavior and mental deterioration. And this brain damage was caused by repeated blows to the head while playing football. No one had ever seen anything like this before. Omalu named the newly discovered condition, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE for short. He wrote a paper on his findings entitled, "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player." The paper was published in the journal, Neurosurgery in July of 2005.
The NFL has, up until recently, been reluctant to admit the connection between CTE and football. In fact, initially, they called Omalu's findings flawed and even asked that he retracted his article. However, Omalu continued his work, looking at more and more brains of players who had also exhibited odd and unstable behavior before passing away and he found even more cases of CTE. The condition gained media attention and over time the NFL has changed its position. However, it wasn't until March of 2016 that the NFL clearly confirmed there was a link between CTE and playing football.
The NFL has also faced a substantial number of lawsuits as a result of the awareness raised about CTE. The lawsuits were filed by former players accusing the league of "hiding the dangers of concussions," according to CNN. A majority of the over 200 lawsuits representing over 5000 players were settled in April of last year after being consolidated in federal court. As part of the settlement the NFL will not have to admit any wrongdoing. According to USA Today, it will include "payment of monetary awards to retirees diagnosed with certain neurological conditions, funding for a program to monitor, diagnose and counsel ex-players and payment of fees to the retired players' attorneys." However, some players in the class were unhappy with the settlement and the case is currently being appealed. In addition, some players opted out of the settlement in order to pursue claims on their own.
Dr. Omalu now works as the Chief Medical Examiner in San Joaquin County in California. He is also the President as well as Medical Director of Bennet Omalu Pathology. In addition, he is a volunteer Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California at Davis Medical Center.