The new movie, “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, is based on the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist, who was among the first scientists to sound the alarm about the long-term dangers that playing football poses to the brain.
He has faced fierce resistance from doctors, lawyers, and executives employed by the National Football League.
Surprisingly, the story of Omalu’s conviction about concussions and football, is far less about science and far more about faith.
Omalu was working in Pittsburgh in 2002, when he happened to be chosen to perform the autopsy of Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Steelers in the 1970s and 1980s, who died at the age of fifty from various health problems.
Omalu expected to find clear damage to Webster’s brain caused from 17 seasons (245 games) as an interior lineman. In the NFL, no position involves more constant contact than the interior line.
But curiously, Omalu found what appeared to be a normal brain.
The doctor wasn’t satisfied. Omalu conducted further tests and discovered protein deposits on Webster’s brain. He hypothesized the deposits were the result of thousands of collisions Webster had over the course of his career.
Omalu named this condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), and his findings were published in the journal Neurosurgery, in 2005.
Three doctors employed by the NFL to start a commission on the study of concussions read Omalu’s methodology and challenged it. Thus began the battle we know today that has resulted in congressional hearings, lawsuits, and a movie telling the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu.
Omalu, a devout Catholic, dreamed of coming to America as a young boy. He envisioned a place like heaven where God favored the people of the land. But when he arrived, he was disturbed by an obsession captivating the citizens of this religious nation on of all days, Sundays, the Lord’s Day.
To Omalu, football was a violent game garnering far too much attention on a day set aside for the worship of God.
“God did not intend for us to play football,” Omalu told fellow doctors at the University of Pittsburgh as he explained the skulls inability to protect the brain from numerous collisions.
The doctors told him to leave God out of it. To them, going up against a nations past time and the corporate machine known as the NFL is not a battle God wants to take on.
Of course, Omalu didn’t see it that way. If God was for it (revealing the dangers of concussions), who can go against it.
In the movie, the doctor does back off his first opinion of football by telling the NFL Players Association that he sees much to admire about the game.
“Forgive them,” Omalu says at a congressional hearing attended by NFL executives, who he feels hid the dangers of concussions. “Forgive yourselves. Be at peace.”
Is Omalu a prophet, a whistle blower, or an overzealous scientist whose hypothesis is out of bounds?
It may cost the NFL billions to find out.