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Story of Dr. Omalu Enlightens on Risks of High-impact Sports

  • Mariama Diallo

In Concussion, U.S. actor Will Smith plays forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu who discovered that chronic brain damage was a factor in the deaths of several National Football League (NFL) players.

The recently released movie tells the story of Dr. Omalu, the Nigerian-American doctor who discovered the often-fatal effects of head trauma in American football -- but then faced backlash from the NFL, which governs the sport at the professional level.

A few days before one of America’s most celebrated sporting events – the Super Bowl – Dr. Omalu told VOA via Skype, it started in 2002, when he performed a CT scan on Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall of Famer Mike Webster.

Shocking findings

“Webster had retired from professional football but his life went on this downward trajectory with severe depression, mood disorders, drug abuse, chronic alcoholism and deterioration in his socio-economic status,” he said. His findings shocked him.

“I identified an accumulation of abnormal protein in his brain that resembled what we saw in boxers: dementia pugilistica.”

He later referred to the condition as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

"I found a disease that no one has ever seen… repetitive head trauma chokes the brain," Actor Will Smith said in the movie trailer.

At the premiere, Smith said his own view of football has changed. "I'm a football dad, and I didn't know it, and I've talked to professional football players and people who have been in the game a long time that don't know the information that is in this film,” he expressed.

Findings first dismissed

The NFL dismissed Omalu's findings at first.

“There was some very vicious and violent push back… I was called many names including voodoo doctor, unintelligent, this African. I never knew that African was a derogatory word." Omalu laughed. "People would call me a black African just to insult me.”

In recent years, the NFL has begun making rule changes aimed at preventing head injuries. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league was looking for ways to make the game safer.

Last year, former Super Bowl champions Sidney Rice and Steve Weatherford said they would donate their brains, after they died, for scientific research into repetitive brain trauma.

“I had my fair share of fun with the NFL and, unfortunately, I wasn't protected the way I needed to be, or I wasn't educated enough on the causes [trauma] that concussions could lead to.” Rice who had his first concussion playing football at the age of 8 said.

Make NFL safer

Weatherford added, “The more research can be done, the closer we are to fixing the problem. I think when you look at what Roger Goodell's implemented into the NFL to make it safer is encouraging for me but as much as I love the game of football, I'm not going to let my son play full contact football until he's at least 16.”

Dr. Omalu said this discovery has never been about him, and he hoped the movie would be a game changer and enlighten people about the risks involved in playing high-impact sports like football, hockey, or boxing. He said his 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son didn’t play any contact sports, adding, "I need to preserve their brains."

He said this was not about football but about human beings, our children and our families. And the best cure for it is prevention.