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. Bar review: Cheap drinks do fine at the Joint in St. Petersburg

    Bars & Spirits

    The Tyrone area of St. Petersburg is a little light on drinking spots, so the locals must have been happy when a long-running neighborhood spot — formerly Donk's Sports Tavern and Double J's Sports Bar — reopened earlier this year as the Joint.

    Patrons sit at the bar in the Joint in St. Petersburg.
  2. Local Craft Beer of the Week: Fireberry Tea Ale, Sea Dog Brewing Co.

    Bars & Spirits

    Clearwater's Sea Dog Brewing Co. doesn't get enough credit. Most craft beer drinkers familiar with the near-ubiquitous Sea Dog and Shipyard brands, which have been brewed in Maine since the early '90s, erroneously conclude that the Clearwater location is more of the same. But this location, opened in 2013, features its …

    Justin Grant/Special to tbt*
  3. Epilogue: Snooty, 69, a breed apart from other manatees (w/video)

    Wildlife

    New York City has the Statue of Liberty. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. St. Louis as the Arch.

    And for 68 years, Bradenton had Snooty.

    Aquarium curator Carol Audette touches noses with Snooty the manatee in 2001 at the South Florida Museum. Snooty was 53 then. [Times 2001]
  4. Verizon is back: Unlimited data is boosting subscriptions

    Energy

    After posting surprising losses among cellphone subscribers earlier this year, Verizon is back. The wireless carrier said Thursday that it has added 358,000 phone subscribers over the past several months, blowing analyst expectations out of the water and showing that its unlimited data plans are helping to keep …

    Verizon said Thursday that it has added 358,000 phone subscribers over the past several months, blowing analyst expectations out of the water and showing that its unlimited data plans are helping to keep customers loyal.
(Associated Press]
  5. Director: Jameis Winston is most charismatic 'Hard Knocks' QB

    Bucs

    TAMPA — The Bucs' Hard Knocks life has already begun. HBO and NFL Films' behind-the-scenes documentary series of an NFL training camp — this season featuring the Bucs — started filming even before training camp began. That means Matt Dissinger, the show's director, is already the hardest working …

    Jameis Winston (3) lifts a victorious arm after the Bucs beat the San Francisco 49ers in October at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times ]