Bennet Omalu’s full Nigerian name means: “He who knows must come forward to speak.” And that is what he has done and continues to do, despite efforts by National Football League officials, players, fans and even some of his medical peers to discredit and silence him.
A once-unknown forensic pathologist, Omalu became a household name thanks to a PBS documentary titled, “A League of Denial,” and a 2015 feature film, “Concussion,” starring Will Smith. In both films, we learn how Omalu discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy while conducting an autopsy on the brain of Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who had died of a heart attack at age 50 in 2002 after years of living in a state of confusion.
Omalu wanted to find out why this seemingly strong, healthy man’s life had deteriorated to the point where he routinely shocked himself with a Taser gun in order to stop his body from shaking. Initially, Omalu found nothing out of the ordinary with Webster’s brain, but he refused to give up. Upon further review, he stumbled upon CTE, which he concluded had been caused by a lifetime of head-banging playing football.
His medical discovery was pilloried rather than celebrated as an important breakthrough.
“I was ostracized and treated like a quack,’’ said Omalu, who is in Rochester this week to participate in the Catholic Charities fundraiser and a symposium on concussions. “I was portrayed as this Dr. Nobody from Africa who was trying to kill the beloved American game of football.
“The toughest part wasn’t the criticism from the National Football League; I expected that. The toughest part was the reaction of some of the people in my profession. My Roman Catholic faith helped me through those difficult times—that, and the belief that the truth of my findings would prevail.’’
It did, resulting in the realization and acknowledgment that there is a significant concussion problem in sports, particularly contact sports such as football, boxing and hockey. Bolstered by Omalu’s discovery, former NFL players brought and won a billion-dollar class-action suit against the league after a protracted legal battle.
“The truth isn’t always convenient,’’ Omalu said. “In fact, it can be quite inconvenient. And we may want to deny it. We may want to fight it because it goes against what society wants us to believe. But truth ultimately will win. It always has and it always will.”
Omalu said he is not out to slay the goliath known as football, but understands why that is the perception.
“What we are up against in our society is what I call ‘conformational intelligence,’ ’’ he said. “That is the phenomenon whereby intelligence is controlled by expectations of society without you even being aware of it. So when you are presented information counter to your beliefs, you reject it. The NFL has done a brilliant job of making football not only the sport of America, but the identity of America. So, when you have this outsider from Nigeria present evidence that football is damaging the brains of the youth of America, what do you do? You attack that person and discount the science.’’
Omalu’s latest crusade—to prevent children from playing contact sports like football until age 18—has been roundly criticized, even by doctors and scientists who acknowledge the potential dangers, especially among young people. They believe Omalu is being an extremist. They argue that improved concussion protocols and equipment have made these sports significantly safer and have reduced the risk of brain injuries. His harshest critics see this as nothing more than a publicity grab by a controversial doctor who enjoys being a celebrity.
But the 58-year-old Omalu refuses to back down. He equates the participation of children in these games to child abuse.
“Nobody would wake up in the morning, place a helmet on their child and ask him to slam his head against the wall,’’ he said. “Nobody would do that, just like no caring adult would give a child a cigarette or alcohol. Yet, we’ll put a helmet on a child’s head and let him go out there and slam their heads and bodies against the heads and bodies of other children. Makes no sense to me.’’
The issue of concussions and how to prevent them remains a hot topic, particularly in youth football, which has seen declining enrollment as parents decide tackle football is not a safe activity. Despite better medical protocols, equipment and coaching, the risks remain high.
“Better helmets aren’t going to stop concussions and better tackling techniques aren’t going to stop them either,’’ Omalu said. “The reality is that you can’t take the head out of the game. It is a collision sport and you won’t stop concussions unless you change the very nature of the game.’’
Omalu dismisses charges that he hates sports.
“I am not anti-sports,’’ he said. “But I am anti-high-impact-sports for young people. I believe there are many alternative sports that can teach the same values of teamwork and provide recreation and encourage physical fitness without endangering their brains.’’
He fully understands how popular football is in our society, how ingrained it is in our culture. But he says just because it is highly popular doesn’t mean it will always be that way.
“In the old Roman empire, the gladiators would fight and kill each other as thousands of spectators cheered and hailed them,’’ Omalu said. “It was very popular. But, at some point, the emperor stopped it and banned it because he could not see the goodness in it any more. We should not carry on the mistakes of the past because it is a tradition. We live in the most advanced society in the history of the world. There are 21st century questions that we need to ask ourselves. And we need to listen and respond, based on objective facts and truth, not emotions.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.