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Omalu

Omalu Tells the Truth About NFL, Concussions        

Joshua Holtz, The Heights

Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist—and the NFL’s public enemy number one, portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 movie Concussion—delivered the Center’s Chambers Lecture. The event was co-sponsored by the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center’s Black History Month Committee.

Born in a Nigerian refugee hospital during the Biafran War, Omalu survived military bombardment and malnutrition as a child. Later, struggling with depression and war-induced mental trauma, Omalu said he discovered the “immense power of knowledge” as an escape from the circumstances of his youth. He exhibited a prodigious intellect at a young age, starting grade school at age 3, attending medical school at age 15, and becoming a doctor at age 21. In 1994, Omalu received a scholarship from the World Health Organization to pursue a fellowship in epidemiology at the University of Washington and arrived in Seattle with $250 in his pocket. Renting a room in a local woman’s attic, his early excitement at immigrating to the United States was tinged with naiveté. “I had no inkling of the American experience of slavery,” Omalu said, explaining that he was surprised by the racism he experienced at the hands of traffic cops, store clerks, and the like.

In 2002, while at the University of Pittsburgh, Omalu heard a televised report of the death of Mike Webster, an American football player who played in the National Football League (NFL). At the time, he knew little of the game of football. “They were talking about this game I saw while I was growing up in Nigeria, on satellite TV—a game where people dressed up like extraterrestrials, running around the field wearing big helmets, fat shoulders, and tiny legs,” Omalu said. He was shocked, later that day, to find Webster’s remains on his operating table awaiting an autopsy. Omalu’s examination of Webster has been called “the autopsy that changed football.” It yielded an unwelcome discovery—that the late superstar had been suffering from a serious, football-induced medical condition unknown to science.

Omalu called the new condition “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” (CTE) and published his findings in a prominent neuroscience journal. He was promptly fired. Ostracized, vilified, ridiculed, and accused of conducting “voodoo medicine” by fellow scientists, organized football, and the National Institutes of Health, Omalu was undaunted. He continued to examine the brain tissues of former football players who he believed had suffered “in silence and obscurity” from CTE. “No university or institution in America gave me a platform to do the work I was doing, so I took my work home,” Omalu said. Years later, and in spite of the best efforts of the NFL, the scientific community forced itself to face a disturbing truth—that football-induced CTE was a reality, and a problem. Omalu attributes the initially reflexive—and spirited—rejection of his findings to the successful efforts of professional football to make itself synonymous with America’s national identity. “The NFL has done a brilliant job of making America believe that [involvement with] football is what it is to be American—that playing, watching, or sponsoring football is what it is to be patriotic,” he said.

In response to an audience member’s question, Omalu said that more technologically advanced helmets do nothing to prevent CTE or other brain injuries from occurring on the football field. The brain, which floats suspended in fluid in the skull, is damaged when sudden changes in momentum cause it to impact the inside of the player’s skull. Helmets can do nothing to prevent this, as they merely protect the surface of the head. In fact, football helmets increase the risk of brain damage by making a player’s head heavier, increasing the weight and force of damaging impacts that they are powerless to prevent. According to Omalu, helmets also “weaponize” the head—they make helmet hits more attractive to players by reducing the more obvious effects of helmet-to-helmet contact, like bruises, broken bones, or external bleeding.

Without a known cure, and causing death in extreme cases, CTE poses a grave danger to players at all levels of the game. Children, according to Omalu, are particularly vulnerable to extensive brain damage.

Children with merely a concussion are more likely than their peers to die before reaching age 42, to struggle with drug addiction, and to drop out of school, to say nothing of the severe mental damage caused by an early, traumatic case of CTE. Omalu said that there is “no justifiable reason” for a child below age 18 to play football due to the extreme risk posed by playing in even a single game. “[It is acceptable for adults to choose to] play football, play Russian roulette, or skydive—but not for children.”