Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man credited with discovering CTE, dropped by CBS Sports Radio on Thursday to discuss numerous topics, including the upcoming film “Concussion,” in which he is portrayed by Will Smith.
“I’m excited,” Omalu said on Tiki and Tierney. “At the same time, I’m very thankful because I think Sony and Will Smith have taken this story from the depths of the valley to the mountain peak of the American psyche. This has become a national discourse, and I’m excited about that.”
Omalu, at Tiki Barber’s request, explained some of the nuts and bolts of CTE. But first, he clarified a popular misconception about his life’s work.
“This is not anti-football,” Omalu said. “This is not anti-American way of life. This is more about the truth. What we know now (is that) whatever human activity whereby the head is exposed to repeated blows – with or without a helmet, with or without symptoms – that over time, as you’re exposed to these blows over the years, each blow cause microscopic injuries on the cellular level. As time goes on, these injuries will accumulate and cause permanent brain damage. Sometimes weeks later, months later, years later – sometimes up to 40 years later – you would begin to manifest a constellation of symptoms. Progressive symptoms that would include loss of intelligence, progressive loss of the capacity to engage in complex intellectual reasoning, mood disorders, loss of memory or memory impairment, disinhibition – meaning drug addiction, sexual improprieties, clinic alcoholism – and other symptoms. It’s permanent brain damage. What we see in a microscope is the accumulation of a normal protein (tau) that would impair and, like Will Smith said in the movie, strangle the brain cells and kill them.”
The discovery of CTE began with Mike Webster, a nine-time pro Bowler and four-time Super Bowl champion who died in 2002. Omalu did not know Webster in life but developed a personal connection with him in death.
“This movie actually is a story of faith,” Omalu said. “I would encourage every Christian to go see this movie on Christmas Day. I suffered major depression in medial school. I struggled with depression. I almost dropped out of medical school. I never wanted to be a physician. My parents pushed me to medical school. So I struggled with it for decades. when I heard the story of Mike Webster after his death – that Saturday morning, September 28, 2002 – I was in my early 30s. I read his story. I emphasized with Mike because I saw myself in him – an individual who suffered psychological diseases that was misunderstood. So on the autopsy table, I introduced myself to Mike and I said to Mike, ‘You know what? I think there is something wrong with you. I think you’re being misunderstood. I did not know what it was, but let’s figure this out together.’ There was no reason for me to have performed Mike Webster’s autopsy. We knew why he died – he died of a massive heart attack – but I still performed this autopsy. If you ask me why, I don’t know. And when I opened up his skull, I was expecting to see a brain that looked diseased because of his symptoms. And I opened up his skull and, lo and behold, his brain appeared normal.”
Omalu was “very discouraged” by what he saw and became “intellectually restless.” He spent six months studying Webster’s brain and eventually studied the brains of other athletes who died before their time, including Chris Benoit.
For Omalu, his work went beyond mere science.
“It became the humanity of science – using science, applying it to mankind suffering, to unravel the truth,” Omalu said. “I made a promise to Mike that I was going to get down to the truth. I met Mike’s family (after I discovered the disease) and I met his wife. She said, ‘I wish, Bennet, you came before Mike died. I would have supported him as a man who was sick, not a man who was a bad father. It was not his fault.’”
Omalu realized that Webster’s family – and countless other families – were “suffering in silence and obscurity.” He thought that was wrong.
“This should not be happening in America,” Omalu realized. “I should use my education and knowledge to become the voice for the voiceless, to stand firm by the truth. Because whatever you do, the truth will always prevail. The truth will set you free and enlighten you. It may take a long time, but eventually, in the fullness of time, it will come – and I think we are in that fullness of time. Because Will Smith, Sony, Hollywood has now taken this story to the mountain top of the American psyche, and everybody’s talking about it.”
Omalu, however, does not believe football is going away anytime soon – nor does he think it should.
“I believe in American ingenuity,” he said. “This is a country where the impossible becomes the possible. The world (in which) we play football today was not the world (in which) we played it 60 years ago. Evolution is not synonymous with ending; it is a continuing effort. So I think as a mankind, we naturally evolve, and as we evolve, we become better people. We become more intelligent. Football is not going to end, but football will evolve to become a better and more intelligent game. . . . But when it comes to our children, we cannot continue intentionally exposing our kids to harm. It’s our moral duty as a modern society to protect the most vulnerable of us.”
Omalu has not watched an NFL game since last year’s Super Bowl – and even then, he wasn’t watching as a fan. He was watching out of professional curiosity.
He didn’t last long. The head-on-head collisions were too much for him.
The NFL, unsurprisingly, has tried to discredit Omalu, but its efforts, by and large, have been unsuccessful.
“The NFL’s first attempt was to exterminate me professionally,” Omalu said. “They made a move to retract my paper as a scientist, as a physician. If your paper is retracted, you’re finished. I (might) as well (have) gone back to Nigeria to do something else. They went for the jugular.”