His findings jolted the medical and sports worlds and awakened a nation to the dangers of repeated head trauma.
A forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu identified a disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of deceased professional football players — raising questions about the risks of brain damage for athletes playing high-impact contact sports.
Along the way, Omalu found himself in the center of an epic David vs. Goliath battle against powerful forces that sought to silence him and discredit his work. His struggle to bring the truth to light was the subject of the movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith as Omalu. He is now the chief medical examiner of California’s San Joaquin County and an associate clinical professor of pathology at the University of California, Davis.
The Nigerian-born doctor — who knew nothing about American football before his groundbreaking autopsies on NFL players — will be in the Twin Cities on Thursday as part of the Inspiring Minds lecture series at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park. We spoke with Omalu before his visit to learn about his efforts amid the ongoing debate over whether kids should play contact sports.
Q: You’re against the idea of kids playing football, ice hockey, boxing and other high-impact contact sports because of the risk of brain damage. Why?
A: As we evolve, we become more intelligent. As we become more intelligent, we give up less intelligent ways of doing things we did in the past.
It’s a very well-known fact in science that blunt force trauma of the head causes brain damage. There’s no doctor who would deny that.
In the 1960s, we used to smoke on airplanes. In fact, it was a trendy thing to do. Smoking was trendy. Today we don’t do that because we’re smarter. In the 1970s, almost every product in your house contained asbestos. Today we don’t do that.
Knowing what we know now, why would we intentionally continue to expose our children to the risk of brain damage? To damage the brain that defines who we are as human beings? This is not science. This is common sense.
Q: Some may find your views that kids should not be allowed to play contact sports the way they’re currently played a bit harsh. What would you say to those — including some doctors — who believe it’s OK to let kids play?
A: What I’m simply saying is that we should look for more brain-friendly and smarter ways of playing high-impact sports.
For example, I went to watch a game of soccer of children who were 5 years old. And the first thing I noticed was that these children, their brains were not yet developed. Their dexterity and muscle coordination was still not developed. So when they would kick the ball, they would overkick, and they would fall. They are chasing the ball, they are all clustering around the ball. They’re not looking at their peripheral vision to see if somebody is to their left or right. Then I looked at the ball they were kicking. I thought the ball was too hard for their age and their sizes.
As an intelligent society, we must embrace new ways of doing things that are better and more brain-friendly. There should be a national discourse. I’ve never used the word “ban” in any of my writings. Because this is America — this is the home of the free, land of the brave.
But we need to look for ways to protect our children from exposure to risk.
Q: How did you come to take this stand?
A: As a pathologist who has done thousands and thousands of autopsies, I see that we are all one of the same. We are all one family. What happens to one of us — even the least of us — happens to all of us.
As part of that one common family, I think it’s a moral duty of mine to share my story like you would share food. To feed the minds, the souls, the hearts and the yearnings of other people. So that if in sharing my story, even if one life is touched, I must have done a lot.
I never wanted to be where I am today in life. I never wanted people to stop me at the airport asking me if I’m Bennet Omalu. But come what may, I am where I am because of faith. Because of believing in who you are, being yourself and living out yourself.
Q: What was the biggest obstacle you encountered in trying to make people aware of CTE?
A: The biggest obstacle I encountered was the reaction of my fellow doctors. My fellow doctors were the ones who really fought me the most — who called me names, who dismissed me, who discredited me. Why? I still don’t understand that. But in sharing my story, I want people to know something: Do not let other people define who you are. The best thing you can do for yourself as a human being is to first know that you are a child of this universe. You’re no less than the majestic stars or the tallest tree in the wilderness. You have every right to be here. This is your time. This is your stage. There can never be another you in the history of mankind. It is your life to live.
Q: Do you have kids and do they play sports? Which ones?
A: I have a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. They don’t play football. If you come to my house, we have badminton. We have a soccer field. They don’t play tackle soccer. They play soccer in terms of penalties. They kick the ball to score. There’s table tennis. There’s swimming. There’s track and field. There are so many options of more brain-friendly sports that children can engage in.
When you’re an adult, and if you want to go sky diving, I would be one of the first to support you to do whatever you want to do.
And I have an ethical conflict in my mind: If I wouldn’t let my son play this game, why would I tell another man’s son to go play?