FEATURE | Posted Dec. 29, 2015

A conversation with "Concussion's" Bennet Omalu

Meet the pathologist who first reported cases of CTE in NFL players

Photograph of Dr. Bennet Omalu © UC Regents
Bennet Omalu welcomes family, friends and guests during a screening of the movie "Concussion."

In an interview with UC Davis Medicine magazine, Bennet Omalu touched on how he dealt with adversity during his discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, how he proposes handling youth collision sports, the intersection of his religious and scientific backgrounds, how a business degree played a part in the name “CTE,” and how the condition could affect perception of pathology as a profession. Excerpts:

Q: You first reported cases of CTE in NFL players, and your discovery drove national discussion and debate about the risks and tradeoffs of football and other collision sports. How does it feel to make a discovery of such influence and import? Did you ever envision being on the national stage like this?

A: No, I never envisioned it and it was never my objective. What motivated me was simply to search for the truth. And also empathy. I’m an immigrant; I came to America and realized I could get as much education as I could in here in the U.S. In 2002 when (NFL Hall of Fame lineman) Mike Webster died, no one could actually explain the profile of his life after football. When he died, on TV people were ridiculing him, pretty much making fun of him and other retired NFL players who, for whatever reason, did not do so well after retirement. So when I heard their stories, I was a bit intrigued. I wondered if their profiles could be due to brain trauma.

So by serendipity, Mike Webster was on my autopsy table. His brain looked normal, but I was not satisfied. As a forensic pathologist, I’m also Catholic, and my faith teaches me when the physical body is dead, your spirit or soul lives on. So I speak to my patients. I spoke to Mike Webster and promised him I’d get to the bottom of this, I’d find out what happened to him. I didn’t think he was just “a loser.”

So when his brain looked normal by naked eye examination, I took the brain home with me. No one really believed what I was doing, but I believed what I was doing. And the rest is history…

Like I said in the (Frontline/PBS) “League of Denial” interview, I wish I never met Mike Webster to be honest with you. What (discovery of CTE) has done to me is exposed me to man’s inhumanity to man. It exposed me to individual greed, individual ambitions... I wanted to live a good simple life, raise my family and die a peaceful death, and not get ensnared by vanities. This has exposed me to something I never aspired to become part of. The limelight, I’m not really enjoying it.

Q: The NFL did not look fondly upon your work on CTE, and the resulting conflict is expected to be a cornerstone of the upcoming movie. What was it like to take on such a large, powerful and popular organization? And how did you get through that kind of adversity?

A: Faith. When all this started – it sounds very contradictory to scientists like me – but like Pope Francis says, faith and science go hand in hand, they complement each other. It was by faith that I ignored the might of the NFL. I believed deeply inside me that I was on the side of the truth. Like my father told me when I was getting my degrees, he warned me, “Look Bennet, I hope you’re not getting all these for the purposes of self-aggrandizement or ego. That would be very dangerous. But if you’re getting all this education so you can use your talent as equity to enhance the lives of other people, that would be beautiful.”

So when I encountered these retired NFL players, and I visited them and their families, I realized they were very poor in spirit. They were also poor in other dimensions. I started seeing the bigger picture... These players are used as expendable assets, and once they retire they are pretty much dumped, they pass into oblivion. No one pays attention to them.

I did not have money, but my knowledge and specialized education was equity I could use to make a difference in the lives of other people. As a Christian I wanted to use science as a tool of love and charity. Because that was a higher calling than myself, I stood firmly. From a Biblical perspective, Jesus would tell you repeatedly “do not be afraid.” If that was my faith, why would I be fearful of the NFL? I’d be in denial of my faith.

I have a M.B.A. from Carnegie Mellon. I was watching the response of the NFL. Their response to me and to the subject (of CTE) from a business and branding perspective was very poor. I think they were blinded by their arrogance. They chose to delegitimize me and dismiss me and marginalize me, because in their minds I was a non-entity, someone of no consequence. They underestimated me, and in doing that they lost control of the message and goodwill.

Click here to read more about Bennet Omalu

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