Omalu: “NFL brand is bleeding … truth will always prevail”

Bennett Omalu photo courtesy Wiki Commons

The article below originally appeared in the Boston Herald Feb. 24.

When you hear the powerful voice of Dr. Bennett Omalu speak, as he did Thursday night at Boston College, you understand why the NFL wanted it stilled. That it has not been is a service to football players and their parents … and to what Omalu would call “our humanity.’’

Dr. Omalu is the once-unknown forensic pathologist who in 2002 discovered CTE in the brain of someone he’d never heard of, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall-of-Fame center Mike Webster. And he stumbled upon it simply because things didn’t add up.

Webster died from a heart attack after having lived in a homeless and confused state for years. Omalu wondered why this happened to an otherwise seemingly healthy mountain of a man who had been a star in a game the Nigerian-born Omalu knew nothing about.  So he decided to perform an autopsy and removed Webster’s brain.

Although it looked normal, he felt something was amiss – with his further study launching what has become known as the concussion epidemic in sports. Moreover, it led to a nearly billion-dollar settlement of a class action suit filed against the NFL by its struggling former players and resulted in the league and much of the medical community turning on Omalu and nearly destroying him.

Omalu’s full Nigerian name means “he who knows must come forward to speak.’’ And so he did, with Thursday nights message clear.

“Truth does not have a side,’’ said Omalu, whose story was told last year in the film “Concussion’’ starring Will Smith. “Truth does not have a perspective. Truth is not convenient. It is inconvenient because it is the truth.’’

The truth, in Omalu’s opinion, is that no one below the age of 18 should play high-intensity, high-contact sports because of the risk of brain injury — not only from concussions but from sub-concussive blows that occur on nearly every play, especially for offensive and defensive linemen in football.

So why 18?

Because, as Omalu said, individuals have reached the age of consent and should be free to act as they choose. But concussive sports like football, boxing, mixed martial arts and hockey, Omalu’s research convinced him, are no place for a kid’s brain.

“They are not worth the risk for children,’’ Omalu said. “There are many other sports that benefit you, teach teamwork and provide fitness. But there are sports you cannot make safer.

“How do you take the head out of football? To say there is a helmet that can prevent concussions is a fiction. It is a lie. Society does not leave it to parents to decide whether a child should smoke or not. Society doesn’t leave it to parents to decide whether a child should drink alcohol or not. Why are we excluding potentially irreversible brain injury?’’

Omalu asks the kind of questions organizations like the NFL, WWE and NHL don’t want asked. It is why the NHL is engaged in a lawsuit now with its players centering around the issues that cost the NFL a billion-dollar settlement.

Yet the issue of concussions and how to prevent them remains a crucial topic. Youth football numbers continue to dwindle as more and more parents are deciding tackle football for 8-year olds is not a sane endeavor.

Meanwhile, the NFL and the many cottage industries around it keep pushing the fiction that there is a “safe way’’ to play and that they are “taking the head out of the game.’’ Really? Name me one NFL game or college game … or even high-school game … where the head wasn’t intimately involved in the contact.

Omalu insists he is not an enemy of the NFL. In fact, he says he’s a friend, although many in pro football would argue that point. He says he admires their marketing genius because they have successfully woven the game so tightly into the fabric of our society that, he says, many Americans believe football is America.

But that world view creates something he calls “conformational intelligence.’’

And what is that?

“It’s a phenomenon whereby intelligence is controlled by expectations of society without you even being aware of it,’’ Omalu explained. “So when you are presented information counter to what you want you deny it, reject it, attack it. Conformational intelligence impacts your emotional IQ.

“The NFL has done a brilliant job of making football the identity of America. Brilliant! So when some foreign doctor, Dr. Nobody from Nigeria, presents evidence that the sport you love so much damages the brains of your children, they kick you out. But when an action does not enhance the humanity of all of us, it is not the truth.

“The truth will always prevail, whether you like it or not. That is why I was never afraid, even when parts of the medical community and the NFL attacked me and my work. I had the humanity of my faith and the humanity of the truth.’’

“Humanity’’ was as much the subject of Dr. Omalu’s talk at B.C. as was CTE or the growing concussion crisis in American sport. To him they are intertwined, which is why he sees one thing when he looks at the NFL’s ongoing problems with the issue.

“The NFL brand is bleeding today, whether they like it or not,” he said. “It is beginning to lose the trust of the people. When an industry loses the trust the American people have put in it, they are finished.

“If they just admitted this is a tough game for tough men … but it is not a child’s game … that would increase their credibility.

“Instead they say they are developing better helmets. If helmets protected players from concussions, why are they still having concussions? There is no helmet that can prevent concussions. It is a lie.

“They say they have concussions protocols. It is a show! It is a joke.’’

As fervent as Omalu is about stopping children under 18 from playing high-impact, high-collision sports, he believes fervently one thing the NFL would surely dispute.

“I am a friend of the NFL,’’ he insisted. “A friend will tell you the truth.’’

Whether the NFL wants to listen is a different question all together.


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1 Comment

  1. Rasputin
    February 24, 2017

    Were you unable to find any counterpoints or were you just uninterested in looking? Here, I’ll help by quoting some excerpts from this Slate article:

    “A 2012 study of several thousand NFL retirees, conducted by researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, found that the former football players lived significantly longer than race- and age-matched controls. They were much less likely to die from cancer, heart disease, diabetes, accidental falls, or homicides than anybody else. That doesn’t mean that taking hits improved their health, of course; surely the opposite is true. But still this study gave the lie to a fundamental intuition about football and one that’s touted almost everywhere. There’s zero evidence that playing professional football shortens lives on average. Those are the facts. Take ’em or leave ’em.

    This is the best study that we have on NFL players and mortality, yet its findings never seem to enter public consciousness. The simple truth, that former players aren’t dying—that in lots of ways they’re much healthier than you or me—smacks against the screen-ready version of history, in which a team of underdog physicians, led by heroes like Bennet Omalu, risked their livelihoods to expose a hidden slaughter.”


    “But is football really causing suicide? Again, there’s zero evidence to support the claim. According to the NIOSH study from 2012, ex-players are much less likely to kill themselves than men of the same race and age.

    That hasn’t stopped the media machine, which seems inclined to tie every former athlete’s suicide to game-related damage to his brain.”


    “In the fall of 2008, researchers at the University of Michigan ran a survey of about 1,000 former players from the NFL, and asked them questions about their physical and mental health. About 3 or 4 percent described themselves as being in the middle of a major depression—the same as in the normal population. When asked if they’d ever been diagnosed with depression, about 16 percent of the players said they had—again about the same as other people. (Among younger retirees, the rates of depression were slightly higher than expected.)

    So former NFL athletes aren’t really more depressed than anyone else. What about violent mood swings? The researchers in Michigan asked the ex-players if they’d ever experienced “attacks of anger when all of a sudden [they] lost control” and became violent. About 30 percent said they had. The baseline rate for U.S. men is much higher—more than 50 percent.”

    NFL players are more likely to report some type of memory impairment than the general population, but it’s one in 20, and not every case is serious. We also don’t yet fully understand CTE, precisely what causes it, or precisely what its effects are.

    On balance ex NFL players are healthier and live longer than equivalent demographics in the general population. They are no more depressed and are less prone to bouts of sudden violence.

    The movie Concussion was also garbage, taking a slew of typical Hollywood liberties, if that was your source for declaring that “the league and much of the medical community turn(ed) on Omalu and nearly destroy(ed) him”. His boss Wecht was guilty of real corruption and had his office raided months before Omalu even published his study, so it wasn’t an attempt to get at Omalu as the movie implied. Omalu even testified against his boss in real life, unlike his refusal to do so in the movie, and even tried to get his job afterwards.

    Webster, who’s shown apparently tasing himself to death in the movie, didn’t commit suicide but died of a heart attack as you say. It was more likely related to his long history of abusing steroids and other drugs than to concussions. He also had an extensive history of mental illness on both sides of his family, including among the women, who presumably didn’t get it from football related concussions.

    Concussions are a real issue but misinformation shrouded in overblown, self-righteous hysteria doesn’t do society any good.

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