Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

'Concussion' doctor tells story behind research on NFL brain injuries

Dr. Bennet Omalu’s work on chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the basis of the upcoming movie Concussion with Will Smith.

LUIS SANTANA | Times

Dr. Bennet Omalu’s work on chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the basis of the upcoming movie Concussion with Will Smith.

TAMPA — Mike Webster's brain sat in Dr. Bennet Omalu's refrigerator for months — right next to a loaf of bread.

Omalu, a medical examiner who had been tasked in 2002 with conducting an autopsy of Webster, a Pittsburgh Steelers center, knew almost immediately there was something wrong with the 50-year-old former football player's brain. It led to Omalu's own crusade to expose the effects of repetitive brain injuries that are all too common in the NFL.

"I took that brain home because I wanted my intellectual independence," Omalu told a crowd of several hundred Thursday night at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts. "The NFL owns Pittsburgh. So I took it home for a reason."

His research uncovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the basis of the upcoming movie Concussion with Will Smith. It details how, because of repeated blows to the head, football is an inherently dangerous sport — not exactly the type of movie the league wants to champion.

Omalu did not discuss reports that the makers of the film actually pulled its punches on the NFL. Instead, he focused on his discovery and how Hollywood, not the NFL, gave Omalu a platform to spread the word about CTE.

"The humanity of science required me to speak out," Omalu nearly shouted, his voice cracking.

Omalu, who grew up in Nigeria, didn't have much experience with football. He remembers seeing the players on television, with all their pads, and thinking they looked like extraterrestrials.

"A recreational activity shouldn't be harmful," Omalu said. "It's meant to give us joy and fun. As a child I wondered, 'Why would they be wearing a helmet?' "

He entered medical school at age 15, but had a mental breakdown in his second year that lead to severe depression. He says that struggle helped him connect with Webster.

"That is what enabled me to empathize with Mike Webster, because I know what it is like to suffer some psychological disease," he said. "I saw myself in Mike Webster, and every other retired NFL player."

He thought, naively, the NFL would embrace his discovery. He was wrong.

The NFL doctors sent a letter accusing Omalu of fraud and contending that his paper should be retracted. They implied he was a voodoo doctor. Some claimed that, by showing the inherent harm in football, he was attacking the American way of life.

"They wanted to sow the seeds of xenophobia," Omalu said. "'This guy should not be trusted. He's not one of us.'"

But with the help of other journals, doctors, media and Hollywood, Omalu's findings gained traction, including inspiring a class-action lawsuit on behalf of former players against the NFL.

As he continues to pursue his research, Omalu said there are things that can be done now to make football safer, such as establishing an age of consent to play football, as is required for smoking, drinking, driving and sex.

"If we make up our minds to play, wait until you are an adult," he said. "There are other options you can play."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

'Concussion' doctor tells story behind research on NFL brain injuries 12/03/15 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2015 10:15pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Jameis Winston, Feeding Tampa Bay to provide groceries to families hit by Hurricane Irma

    Hurricanes

    TAMPA — Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, Feeding Tampa Bay and the nonprofit Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa will distribute food and gift cards Tuesday to an estimated 400 families who suffered power outages and lost food after Hurricane Irma.

    Tampa Bay Bucaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, center, in green shirt, serves a meal at a disaster assistance registration center in St. Petersburg on Sept. 15. Winston has purchased 400 $25 gift cards from Publix and is scheduled to present some of them to families who lost groceries after Hurricane Irma from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa at 1907 E Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa. LARA CERRI   |   Times
  2. Hot, isolated, and running out of supplies, parts of Puerto Rico near desperation

    Hurricanes

    JUNCOS, PUERTO RICO — In the heat and humidity here in the central mountains, Meryanne Aldea fanned her bedridden mother with a piece of cardboard Sunday as the ailing woman lay on her side, relieving a large ulcer in her back.

    A man walks from Juncos in search of gasoline. The mountain town is one of the most affected by Hurricane Maria's pass through Puerto Rico. [Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo | Washington Post]
  3. President Donald Trump during a rally in Huntsville, Ala., Sept. 22, 2017. Trump called for football fans to boycott NFL games unless the league fires or suspends players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.
  4. Rick and Tom podcast: Worst-Case (Keenum) scenario

    Bucs

    Rick Stroud and Tom Jones break down the Bucs' 34-17 loss to the Vikings on Sunday in Minneapolis in their latest podcast.

    Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum (7) scrambles away from Bucs defensive end William Gholston (92) during the first half. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
  5. Tonight: Hear ideas for remaking downtown Tampa interchange

    Transportation

    TAMPA — New concepts for rebuilding the downtown interchange will be discussed at a Florida Department of Transportation community meeting Monday night.

    The Florida Department of Transportation renamed its controversial Tampa Bay Express plan, also known as TBX. The plan is now known as Tampa Bay Next, or TBN. [Florida Department of Transportation]