Top 10 VIPs: Bennet Omalu, the fearless doctor who took on the NFL

Top 10 VIPs: Bennet Omalu, the fearless doctor who took on the NFL

Bennet Omalu discovered that American football players could suffer from a brain disorder previously found only in boxers. This led to a mighty battle with the sport’s governing body that he eventually won

Bennet Omalu is an African-American doctor who rose from humble beginnings in Nigeria to become one of the most respected but controversial figures in the world of medicine.

Omalu is currently the chief medical examiner for San Joaquin County in California and professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis, in the US. His medical research put him at odds with one of America’s most powerful institutions – the National Football League (NFL).

How did a brilliant doctor and a mighty sports body find themselves on opposite sides? Omalu’s fight for hidden medical facts to be made public is an incredible David versus Goliath story.

The boy from Nigeria

Omalu was born in a poor village in Nigeria in 1968, the sixth of seven siblings. The Nigerian Civil War was going on at the time, and Omalu faced great difficulties as he was growing up.

He was lucky to get the chance to go to a local primary school, and through sheer hard work and determination, he earned a place at a government college for his secondary education.

Omalu was an outstanding student, and at the age of 16, he gained a place at the University of Nigeria to study medicine. He graduated at the age of 22, and after completing a hospital internship, he went to work as a doctor in the city of Jos. But the young man was unhappy about where Nigeria was heading under a new government, and decided to leave his homeland and build a professional life in America. He studied and worked in hospitals in Seattle and Washington, and then moved to New York to begin training as a clinical pathologist.

He became interested in neuropathology – study of the human nervous system – and quickly amassed an impressive stack of qualifications and experience in this difficult and demanding medical discipline. In 2002, he performed a post-mortem examination on American football player Mike Webster who had died suddenly. Little did he know that he was about to shake the world of American football to its roots.

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‘Don’t let your children play football’

When Omalu said the above words, he caused a huge uproar across the country and people thought he was crazy. He was, of course, referring to American football, which can be violent and is more like rugby than soccer.

In 2009, America’s National Football League finally acknowledged the link between concussion sustained during a game of football and the killer C.T.E.
Photo: AP

During the examination, no abnormalities were found in Webster’s brain tissue, but Omalu realised that this was not the end of the story. Omalu suspected that Webster had died from dementia pugilistica, a condition previously found only in boxers who had suffered repeated blows to the head. Was it possible that players of American football could die from the same condition? The idea was too controversial to even consider.

The world learns about C.T.E.

Omalu conducted further tests on Webster’s brain tissue, and found proteins that were only present in people who had suffered severe brain injuries. In 2005, he published a paper titled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player”, and the trouble started. Omalu thought that NFL doctors would welcome his discovery, but he was wrong. The NFL dismissed Omalu’s findings as “completely wrong” and “a failure”.

But Omalu knew that he was right. In 2005, he examined another football player, Terry Long, who had also died unexpectedly. Again, he found evidence of C.T.E in Long’s brain tissue. Omalu found similar evidence in the brain tissue of three more NFL players who had suffered early deaths.

In 2007, Omalu presented his findings to the NFL, and again his research was dismissed. The NFL did not acknowledge the link between concussion sustained during a game of football to the killer C.T.E. until 2009, seven years after Omalu first warned of the dangers inherent in the game.

Will Smith (right) and Alec Baldwin in Concussion.

A hit movie

In 2015, Will Smith portrayed Bennet Omalu in the hit Hollywood movie Concussion.

The film revolved around Omalu’s controversial medical discovery and the battles he had with the National Football League as he tried to convince them to accept his findings.

The success of the movie led to the creation of the Omalu Foundation, set up to advance research into C.T.E and concussion.

Quotes by Bennet Omalu from the movie ‘Concussion’

“Repetitive head trauma chokes the brain! And turns man into something else.”

“All animals have shock absorbers built into their bodies. The woodpecker’s tongue extends through the back of the mouth out of the nostril, encircling the entire cranium. It is the anatomical equivalent of a safety belt for its brain. Human beings? Not a single piece of our anatomy protects us from collisions.”

“A human being will get concussed at sixty G’s. A common head-to-head contact on a football field? One hundred G’s.”

“God did not intend for us to play football.”

“I solved the problem. All they have to do is put on the side of the helmet, ‘The Surgeon General has determined that playing football is hazardous to your health’.”

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Doctor who took on the NFL


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