Real Concussion doctor warns against exposure to head injuries
As he paced back and forth on the altar stage at Beth El Synagogue, Dr. Bennet Omalu told a virtually all-White audience that young Blacks should avoid such contact sports as football because it may lead to long-term health problems. Too bad there weren’t a few more Black people among the estimated 900 in attendance to hear his warning.
The famed doctor also warned Blacks against using sports as a way to fame and fortune. “That sports is the only outlet for Black men is a big lie,” declared Omalu in his scheduled February 26 appearance in St. Louis Park as part of his book tour.
Will Smith portrayed Omalu in the movie Concussion that came out around Christmas last year. It was based on the Nigerian-born doctor who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) during an autopsy he performed on former NFL player Mike Webster, who died in 2002 at age 50. He later discovered CTE in several other pro-football players and published his findings.
Although hailed by critics, the movie that grossed nearly $44 million worldwide was considered a U.S. box office flop compared to other big-screen releases at the same time. “People [would] rather go see Star Wars than Concussion because we are in denial,” said the real-life doctor, who told the audience that he felt the story needed to be told.
“That’s why I offered my story to Hollywood for one dollar,” said Omalu, who also was the subject of a 2013 PBS documentary, League of Denial, based on a book by the same name.
Omalu became a physician at age 21 and came to the U.S. in 1994 on a World Health Organization scholarship. He told the audience that he named the condition CTE “so a six-year-old child could remember [it].”
Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, who moderated a brief Q & A with Omalu, asked the part-time forensic pathologist, who runs his own medical and legal consulting company in California, about his battles with the NFL, who tried to discredit him and his work. “It’s been a very difficult road for me to travel,” Omalu admitted.
“This wasn’t just a fight between me and the NFL, but against principalities and power. The NFL is not in the business of public health but in the business of making money.”
Asked if he thinks racism played a part in this, he said, “I refused to conform to the expectation of this society.” He told the MSR afterwards, “There’s systemic racism in this society. Anybody who denies it isn’t being honest.
“Before 2002, no one knew what CTE meant,” continued the doctor, admitting that he never really understood American football. “[It] didn’t make sense to me.” He stressed that he is not “anti-football,” but he is against young children participating in contact sports before age 14. “I’m for science, and I am for intelligent football.”
Omalu advised parents “to enlighten our children” about the possible dangers of playing contact sports. “Once a concussion [is suffered], the damage has already been done. There is not a logical reason to expose children to repeated hits, no matter the sport. The younger you are, the greater the risk you will suffer brain damage.
“What is intelligent about…beating someone’s head? There is no helmet or equipment today that will prevent concussions. Don’t be fooled. Once you suffer the [head] injury, it is permanent.”
“This is not just a professional sport issue,” said Ehlinger to the MSR. “This is really about protecting our children.”
Former Minnesota Viking Matt Blair was one of the few African Americans present to hear Omalu’s talk last week. He told the MSR afterwards, “I know he is going around making a lot of speeches about [concussions]. I think if he is going to continue to talk, he should try to reach out to people and tell them what they need to do.”
However, there were few Blacks in the audience at Beth El last week. “You’re one of four,” noted Ehlinger to the MSR. The commissioner also made reference to this during the presentation as well.
Omalu’s appearance last week was “promoted far and wide… It was mentioned in the Star Tribune three or four times,” Rabbi Avi Olitzky told us, but he didn’t list any Black media sources, including the MSR. “We usually issue press releases to 100 different outlets, all the major TV outlets and did e-blasts.”
“CTE affects our community,” said Ifeoma Ikeme of Minneapolis, among the many standing single-file afterwards to have their purchased book signed by Omalu, which he did for almost an hour afterwards. “I’m not a sports fan and didn’t know about concussions. I did not see the movie, but I did see the PBS special last year.”
Omalu, who holds eight medical and non-medical degrees and certifications including an MBA and a master’s degree in epidemiology, surmised that CTE “brings out the animal in you” and can contribute to such problems as domestic violence. “I’d bet my [medical] license that O.J. Simpson [who played pro football] had CTE.”
When the MSR asked Omalu of his thoughts on Concussion, he responded, “I think every African American family should see the movie.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.