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Friday, January 29, 2016

An Inconvenient Truth: Dr. Bennet Omalu on Prejudice in America's Favorite Pastimes

Posted By on Fri, Jan 29, 2016 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge Dr. Bennet Omalu leads Concussion: Brain Injury and the NFL at City Arts & Lectures with Stone Phillips on Feb. 4. - COURTESY OF GREATER TALENT NETWORK, INC.
  • Courtesy of Greater Talent Network, Inc.
  • Dr. Bennet Omalu leads Concussion: Brain Injury and the NFL at City Arts & Lectures with Stone Phillips on Feb. 4.

Dr. Bennet Omalu shares more with actor Will Smith than one might think.  Not only did Smith portray the forensic pathologist, credited with discovering Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in the recent biopic Concussion, but also they've both experienced rejection from their respective industries. If the Nigerian doctor believes that he was initially discredited by the medical community and the NFL for his revolutionary finding because of racism and xenophobia, Smith feels that he was passed over for an Academy Award nomination, because of industry prejudice.

SF Weekly spoke to Dr. Bennet Omalu, who appears in conversation with Stone Phillips at City Arts & Lectures on Feb. 4, about revolutionizing neuroscience, prejudice in the medical community and Hollywood and how he'll spend Super Bowl Sunday.

What will you be addressing at your upcoming City Arts & Lectures event?

I will be discussing my life journey and experiences and will share my inspirational milestones.

One of your most famous milestones was your autopsy of former Pittsburg Steeler Mike Webster.

Serendipity would have it that I met Mike Webster in death on Sept. 28, 2002. I was just doing what everybody does in our ordinary lives. You go to work, you do a good job and you come home at the end of the day, feeling happy that you gave it your best. When I encountered Mike Webster, I promised him on the autopsy table that if he should help me, I'd get to the bottom of this. I'd use my education and knowledge to become the voice of the voiceless.

What did you learn?

I went to watch football games to better understand what the game was about. But I realized that in every play in football, the human head is exposed to blunt force trauma. So just based on that very basic scientific tenet, I put one and one together to figure out on a very elementary level that Mike Webster, who played this game for 17 years as a professional and more as an amateur, that the behavior he manifested after retirement, was most likely resulting from exposure to repeated blunt force trauma to his head.

How did you know that Mike Webster's case wasn't just a one-off and that more NFL players suffered from this condition? 

So when I saw that Mike Webster had brain damage, I believed that many more retired football players would have the same thing. So that instigated me to seek more players. I was on my eighth case before any other doctor saw what I was seeing, which was CTE.

When you made your discovery, you came up against a lot of opposition from the NFL and the medical community.  

When I came across this disease, I was amazed at the response I got. And what amazed me more was the reaction I got from some fellow doctors. I was ridiculed, I was humiliated, I was called names and I was marginalized. Even the NFL insinuated that I was practicing voodoo. Even until today, there are doctors who are denying that I discovered CTE.

Whenever you are a minority, in every human endeavor, more will be expected of you, and you will be more likely to experience prejudice and misconceptions. When a black person—and in my case, not just black, an African—comes across something great, certain people deny it and take away that recognition from the black person. But I’m proud that today the promise that I made to Mike Webster and his family has been fulfilled.

I'm not trying to lead the witness. But the NFL was not willing to listen to your findings because that would mean that they'd have to make amendments to the game?

We as humans are typically constrained by our emotional composition, and a very recurrent component is that element of fear of what we do not know nor are familiar with. We are typically afraid of changing the status quo, because of fear. I think that's where the NFL failed—fear of the truth. But you must have the strength to look fear in the eye, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient it may be.

You've since applied your findings to war veterans, suffering from PTSD and mood disorders.  

While I was moving forward with this endeavor, I ignored all the noise around it and focused on the science. I read and realized that military veterans are exposed to all sorts of blunt force trauma to the head and to repeated acceleration/deceleration injuries of their brains. So I noticed that a proportion of PTSD sufferers, when they come back from war, begin to manifest new symptoms that resemble CTE symptoms including drug and alcohol abuse and suicides. So I started investigating with my own money. I performed autopsies on two military veterans because that is all I could afford. One went to Vietnam and one to Iraq, and they began to manifest drug and alcohol abuse, mood disorders and depression. So I examined their brains, and they had CTE.

About two years later, I and some other doctors developed what we call FDDNP, that we can use experimentally to identify CTE in living people, so we formed a corporation, purchased the intellectual property rights to FDDNP and then ran all the tests in about 22 people, including two military veterans. We've since found that there is a certain proportion of military veterans suffering a disease due to physical brain damage. And we're beginning to identify it.

After we published the papers, the United States Department of Defense have set up a program in the military to monitor these changes in war veterans. We’re moving FDDNP forward. We’re collaborating with the FDA to start a clinical trial, so that in two years it will confirm the tech and science, so we can identify it in living people with a PET scan. But the roadblock I’m encountering is money. I’ve been told that if I were a white American, then I would have been better recognized and supported.  

Did you work closely with Will Smith when he was portraying you in Concussion?

Will Smith requested to meet me and spend time with me first. We met at the Bel Air Hotel in Beverly Hills. Will Smith is a good man. We developed a mutually respectful friendship. We shared a lot in terms of personal experiences and convictions. He's almost like a brother to me now. That defined it all to me. He told me in one of our lengthy discussions that I should realize that this is not about me. But rather I'm just a messenger, a vessel of God's love to others, not the message. And that I should recognize that truth and embrace it with every humility. That has been my experience through the movie—humility.

What are your thoughts on the Academy Awards boycott?

Film is such a powerful agent of change, and that's why it's unfortunate that we're having problems with the Academy for excluding certain types of people from their nominating process. What is the statistical probability in America for two separate years that 40 actors and actresses were nominated by the Academy and not one of them was black or Hispanic or Asian? It is not by chance; it's a problem. It doesn't do the industry any good, and it's not who we are as Americans.

Who do you think should have been nominated this year?

That is above my pay grade. I'm not a movie expert.

Let me rephrase the question. Should Will Smith have been nominated?

In my personal opinion, yes. Listening to the movie critics, I've noticed a consensus that his acting in Concussion is his best so far. I’ve not seen anyone who disputes that.  

Will you be watching the Super Bowl?

The last time I watched a game of football was last year’s Super Bowl. I decided to watch it because of all the hype. But in the first five or 10 minutes of the game, I was seeing human beings running into each other, banging their heads on one another and sustaining blunt force trauma of their heads. What was flashing through my mind was the autopsy findings of what was going on in their brains. I had goosebumps on my skin. My heart was palpitating. I was breathing faster and was suffering an anxiety attack. I switched off the TV. That was the last time I saw a game of football.

So then how will you spend Super Bowl Sunday?

On a typical Sunday, my best drink is Johnnie Walker Blue. That was what [Concussion director] Ridley Scott gave me this year for my Christmas gift. So like every other Sunday, I’ll pull out my Johnnie Walker Blue straight and spend it with my wife and two kids. My Kenyan wife likes to drink Smirnoff Ice, and she'll fix us some Kenyan cuisine. My kids love their Coke and Sprite, and we shall play FIFA on Xbox. My son loves it and is very competitive. 

What would you like attendees to take away from your upcoming City Arts & Lectures talk?

Whatever you're doing, the truth will always prevail. It may take a long time coming, but it will always prevail, just like in the movie. It's liberation and will set you free. 

Concussion: Brain Injury and the NFL, Thursday, Feb. 4, 7:30 p.m., $29, at Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St, 415-392-4400 or

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Joshua Rotter


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