The Magazine May 2013 - Page 12

"I talked to the NFL," Tyler Seau, then 22, told the chaplain. The league, he said, informed him that Omalu's "research is bad and his ethics are bad." Tyler was in a rage. Omalu "is not to be in the same f---ing room as my dad!" he screamed. "He's not to f---ing touch my dad! He's not to have anything to do with my dad!"

Omalu left and returned home, his brain briefcase empty.

From that point on, the NFL played a powerful role in determining what happened to Junior Seau's brain -- who studied it and where. In the hours, days and weeks after Seau shot himself in the chest with a .357 Magnum revolver -- the shocking end to the life of one of the most admired players in history -- the league muscled aside independent researchers, ignored a previous commitment to Boston University and directed Seau's brain to the National Institutes of Health -- four months before the NFL donated $30 million to that institution for concussion and other research.

The NFL's intervention in the fate of Seau's brain -- the most prized specimen yet in the race to document the relationship between football and brain damage -- was part of an aggressive strategy to dictate who leads the science of concussions. By shunting aside Omalu, whose discovery sparked the concussion crisis; Boston University researchers, the leading experts on football and brain damage; a Nobel laureate; and other suitors, the league directed Seau's brain away from scientists who have driven the national debate about the risks of playing football -- the central issue to the NFL's future.

"Outside the Lines" and "Frontline" pieced together the odyssey of Seau's brain from interviews, documents and private emails.

What emerges is essentially a scientific backroom brawl in which the NFL prevailed over a half-dozen researchers vying for Seau's brain. To the league and the Seau family -- and even some of the losers -- this was the best possible outcome. The NFL ended an ugly free-for-all that brought added pain to Seau's relatives, who received unsolicited calls from brain researchers, including Omalu, within hours of his death. With researchers unwilling to share tissue and bad-mouthing one another to Seau's family, the intervention by league representatives led to a blind study by one of the most respected research institutions in the country. Five specialists consulted by the NIH found what Omalu himself suspected: Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the disease found in dozens of former players.

"Obviously, the NFL wants to be real careful as to not look as though they were inserting themselves in the middle of this, where they're trying to cover something up," said Kevin Guskiewicz, one of three members of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee who helped steer Seau's brain to the NIH. "I can assure you that is not the case right now."

But there's a déjà vu quality to the NFL's recent strategy. A federal lawsuit filed against the league by more than 4,000 retired players and their families (including Seau's) revolves around the NFL's previous scientific exploration. The players charge that the league's original concussion committee, which was disbanded in 2009, conducted fraudulent research to hide the connection between football and brain damage. That 15 years of research has been largely discarded, even by the league. When Mitchel Berger, chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of California San Francisco, joined the NFL's new concussion committee in 2010, he and his colleagues "essentially started from zero," Berger said.