The latest revelation in the ongoing legal war between WWE attorney Jerry McDevitt and Konstantine Kyros, a Boston based lawyer who is representing Vito LoGrasso and Evan Singleton in a concussion lawsuit against the company, is that WWE has subpoenaed Dr. Bennet Omalu to hand over his research on Chris Benoit and other deceased wrestlers, plus any correspondence with Chris Nowinski and his Concussion Legacy Foundation.
Omalu is the forensic pathologist who first discovered the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when he examined tissue of the late Mike Webster, a former NFL player for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs, over a decade ago. In June 2007, he co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) with concussion activist Chris Nowinski, respected neurosurgeons Dr. Julian Bailes and Dr. Robert Cantu, and lawyer Robert Fitzsimmons with the aim of studying more brains of dead athletes to understand better the consequences of head trauma in contact sports. The foundation’s national profile was quickly raised when Omalu diagnosed Benoit with CTE later that year.
Shortly thereafter, Nowinski and Omalu’s partnership would split up in messy fashion. Nowinski grew to believe that Omalu was too reckless to take on the NFL, feeling that his penchant of showing autopsy photos in public presentations was in poor taste, whilst also being furious when he found out that Omalu had shown an ESPN reporter that he was storing part of Benoit’s brain in a large bucket of formaldehyde in his hall closet. However, as is so often the case, what really caused the break-up was arguments about cash and control. They clashed over where to base the SLI. Omalu came to believe that Nowinski planned to use his research as a vehicle to become rich and famous, especially when he pushed to be paid over $100,000 a year for his advocacy work at a time when the SLI was yet to start making any money. These issues led to Bailes and Fitzsimmons resigning from the SLI, Omalu being forced out, and Nowinski allying himself with rival neuropathologists at Boston University. What followed was a rather sordid fight between the Nowinski and Omalu groups to be the first to procure the brains of recently deceased athletes for their research, one which Nowinski largely won.
However, Omalu is now back in the game, having teamed up with Kyros to procure the brains of late WWE wrestlers Axl Rotten, Balls Mahoney and Chyna for scientific research, but you can be guaranteed that WWE will face further legal action if it is found that any of them were suffering from CTE at the time of their deaths.
The subpoena by WWE is unsurprising as McDevitt has never accepted Benoit’s CTE diagnosis and has repeatedly asked for chain of custody records to prove that the tissue on the slides that purportedly showed that Benoit’s brain was riddled with aggregations of tau protein found in victims of CTE was indeed that of Benoit, which he never received. Ironically, WWE’s medical director, Dr. Joseph Maroon, included Benoit’s case in a recently published paper that he was the lead author on that systematically reviewed all reported cases of CTE in the medical literature.
Earlier this week, the Boston Globe noted how Nowinski is now caught in a difficult position, given that he made his name off the Benoit brain study, yet has since embraced WWE as a multimillion-dollar sponsor of his Concussion Legacy Foundation. When the Globe asked Nowinski whether he stood by Omalu’s diagnosis of CTE in Chris Benoit’s brain, he issued a very carefully worded statement to them through his foundation:
“I am not a neuropathologist and I relied on Dr. Omalu’s statement that the brain met his criteria for a CTE diagnosis. I had no reason to question the diagnosis.”
The problem for Nowinski is that Omalu’s diagnosis was affirmed at the time by Dr. Robert Cantu, the co-founder and current medical director of his Concussion Legacy Foundation. Admitting that the diagnosis was flawed, whilst helping WWE in their current litigation with Kyros, would also undermine the work of his closest colleague.