At first glance, Dr. Bennet Omalu seems an unlikely subject for a major studio movie. A Nigerian-born forensic pathologist, Omalu worked for years in quiet obscurity, performing autopsies at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh — hardly the kind of resume that would normally attract the attention of Hollywood.
But in 2002, Omalu performed an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster and found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head — the first such discovery in a pro football player. Omalu’s findings put him on a collision course with the National Football League, which sought to undermine and discredit him. That story that is now recounted on the big screen in director Peter Landesman’s hot-button drama “Concussion,” with Will Smith playing Omalu.
We spoke to Omalu, 47, who now serves as the medical examiner of San Joaquin County in California, about his improbable journey from growing up in a village in Nigeria to taking on one of the most powerful institutions in the sports world.
Q: What did it feel like for you to watch this movie the first time?
A: It was a very unusual feeling, watching someone act you on-screen. But really this has never been about me. It sounds weird, but as a physician we are taught in medical school to detach ourselves — yes, be empathic, but don’t get involved personally. So my approach to all this has been very professionalized.
This is not about me. It’s about a message. It’s way, way above my pay grade. I’m just as ordinary as everyone else.
Q: Growing up in Nigeria, did you see many American movies?
A: My gosh, as a child, I loved American movies. I didn’t see so many of them, but I remember I saw “An Officer and a Gentleman,” I saw “The Sound of Music.” I had this idealistic image of America. I thought America was a heaven on Earth.
Q: When you reported the first known case of CTE in a former pro football player, did you have any idea that your findings would get so much pushback from the NFL?
A: I was naive. I knew nothing about football. When I identified CTE, I was happy because I thought what I had discovered was going to enhance the game. When the NFL started coming after me, the NFL was going against the truth — not me. I knew in my heart of hearts, deep down, that the truth would always prevail. That is the humanity of science.
I’m a Christian. The Bible says, “Do not be afraid.” When you do something in truth, you step into the light. That was just what I did. The NFL was attacking me, ridiculing me, but they couldn’t change the truth.
Q: The movie suggests that there was a degree of racism and xenophobia behind some of those attacks.
A: As a black man, I’m still discriminated against systemically and systematically. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go, especially in the field of science.
Some people have told me, “Bennet, if you were white and you did what you’ve done, the NFL would have opened up an institution for you and had you serve as the head of it.” Even fellow doctors — including ones who, if I gave you their names, you’d be appalled — have made very derogatory, ugly statements about me simply based on my ethnicity. They have this tendency always to suspect: “He is suspicious — don’t trust him.”
I’ve been to meetings where, you look on the side of the (NFL) players and the majority are black and then you look on the side of the management and physicians of the NFL and the majority are white. It’s almost like 98 percent to 2 percent. Why?
Q: There’s a level of violence that’s just inherent in football, and fans have always loved seeing those hard hits. Given what we know about the risks of brain injury, how would you like to see the sport change?
A: I’m not anti-football. If as an adult you know, ‘If I play football, there’s a risk I’ll suffer brain damage,’ and you still make up your mind to play, I would be one of the first to stand up and defend your right and freedom to play. It’s like smoking. If we tell you smoking will cause lung cancer and heart disease and you still as an adult make up your mind to smoke, I will defend your right to smoke if you want to. This is a free country.
But we need to protect children because they are still minors. If you start exposing yourself to blows to the head as a child, your risk of brain damage is greater. With smoking, alcohol, sex or driving, you need to reach the age of consent before we allow you to intentionally expose yourself to harm. If we have done it with smoking and drinking alcohol, why shouldn’t we do it for the risk of brain damage from repeated blows to the head?
Getting repeated blows to the head is more dangerous to the brain than alcohol. It’s more dangerous than smoking. So why do we continue to expose our children? As a modern society it’s our duty to protect our most vulnerable, most precious gifts of life: our children. This is where I stand.
Q: Many people see the concussion issue as posing an existential threat to the NFL. But at the same time, no matter what scandal and controversy erupts around the league — whether it’s this issue or domestic violence arrests or Deflategate — football only seems to get bigger.
A: I have an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University. There is no organization in this world that is too big to fail. Look at big industries of the past: Look at Kodak, look at steel. In the good old days of the steel industry, nobody would have believed that steel could become a diminished industry.
We as a society evolve, and any business entity that refuses to evolve with the society because of some kind of self-considered arrogance will fall by the wayside. This is a very basic business concept.
Q: Knowing what you know and having been through what you’ve been through, do you ever actually sit down and watch a football game?
A: The last football game I watched was the Super Bowl. After the first play, the hitting — pow! — I just had goose bumps. What was going through my mind was what was happening to their brains on the microscopic level.
I switched off the TV and did something else. I just couldn’t take it.
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