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Racism, Science,
and the Corporation That Owns a Day
Dr. Bennet Omalu’s Story of Concussion

January 4, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


The more attacks I got from the NFL (National Football League), the more resolved I became to be myself. And every time I smelled racism, I even became angrier and more determined to be myself and stand for what I believed in, which in my mind was the truth.

Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas

These are the words of Dr. Bennet Omalu in the book, Concussion. Concussion, written by Jeanne Marie Laskas, is a story about a doctor with multiple medical degrees from Nigeria who discovered CTE1 (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a brain disease, in football players. It is about the struggle for scientific discovery and a battle against the powerful NFL that did not want this disease and its causes to be brought into the light of day. (The book was made into a movie that was just released at Christmas, and I will have something to say about the movie at the end.)

The first third of the book gives you a sense about who Bennet Omalu is as he grows up in Nigeria, becomes a doctor, comes to the U.S. and takes up a job as forensic pathologist in the Allegheny County Coroner’s office in Pittsburgh, PA.

He talks about how he was shaped while in Nigeria:

I began to notice deficiencies in society I grew up in. My youthful idealism was strongly inconsistent with what I was observing. People accepted the status quo and somewhat embraced and encouraged mediocrity as a way of life. It really got me upset and impatient. I began to think that I did not belong to this society, with these people, with this system. I became more unsettled and angry.

But when Bennet Omalu came to the U.S., he found that in America, there was something for him to become angrier about:

But the thing that really complicated everything now was racism, which I still did not understand. At this time in my life, I had not read a lot about slavery and the history of racism in the United States. When I got here, I started reading the books.

He read about the Igbo people, his tribe in Nigeria, and how as slaves, chained to the decks of the York, they rose up in rebellion, took control of the ship, grounded it in Dunbar Creek, Savannah, GA, drowned all of their captors, and then gave their lives rather than become slaves by “walking into the creek in a collective suicide.”

Omalu continues:

If I had known all that before I came to the United States, honestly, I may not have come. I would have been so disgusted that I may have simply decided to remain in Nigeria. And the ironic thing was that America was a Christian nation founded on Christian principles! How can a Christian nation perpetrate such evil over centuries? I could not understand it. (Bennet Omalu is a devout Catholic, and this book is filled with much of his religious beliefs.)

Revolution/ has published a number of articles about concussions in football and about Dr. Bennet Omalu, so I’m not going to repeat what was said in those articles. For more on that, readers are encouraged to read “League of Denial Is a League of Criminals—The Outrageous Brain Injury Cover-Up of the National Football League” (Revolution #320 October 20, 2013) and “NFL Concussion Settlement: $765 Million to Suppress the Truth About Brain Injuries” (September 15, 2013).

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What comes through in this book (as well as the movie) that has not been discussed previously about concussions and the CTE disease is the importance of science, scientific discovery, and the fight for the truth. In the book, Laskas poses this as the “good science” of Dr. Omalu versus the “bad science” of the NFL. This is not correct. The correct way to see this is that Dr. Omalu applied the science of forensic pathology to discover the clumps of tau protein in the brains of deceased football players while the NFL had its doctors lie and do everything to try to discredit Dr. Omalu, including claiming Dr. Omalu’s science “was faulty” and it was “voodoo medicine.”

We get to follow how Dr. Omalu made his discovery after he received the brain of Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers. As we previously reported, “In 2002, Mike Webster, age 50, died of a heart attack. In his final years he exhibited severe memory loss and dementia. He would put Super Glue on his teeth and Tasered himself to relieve his pain.”

Dr. Omalu followed meticulous forensic scientific procedures to dissect Mike Webster’s brain and study it very closely, including taking the dissected slides home to study them. At first, he found out that the Mike Webster’s brain did not have the characteristics of brains of those who had Alzheimer’s or dementia. This caused him to become more curious and to use all of the science he knew to keep at searching for some abnormality in the brain. He saw some dark splotches in the brain but did not know what they were.

It was his wife-to-be, Prema, who is a central figure in the book (and the movie), who gave Dr. Omalu the words to discover what was in Mike Webster’s brain, when she sang a song: “what the mind does not know the eye cannot see.” Dr. Omalu then remembered what a professor once told him: that “you can’t know what you are looking at unless you understand it.”

And this led him to dig deeper into scientific studies to try to figure out what those dark splotches could be. He was not deterred when, at first, he could not figure it out because he thought that “the rhythm of the evolution of science (was) fits and starts and wrong turns and denial and more fits and starts.” Dr. Omalu did a lot of research about concussions and read many studies done about concussions. He had a question about whether the brain can completely heal itself after a concussion. He found a study reported in a 1927 Journal of American Medicine article about 100 such patients, which concluded, “Not only is there actual cerebral injury in cases of concussion, but in a few instances complete resolution does not occur and there is a strong likelihood that secondary degenerative changes develop.”

His perseverance in his science in studying Mike Webster’s brain and with another scientist, his former professor at the University of Pittsburgh, also examining the brain, led Dr. Omalu to discover what it was.

When he did find that it was tau protein, which is an abnormality when it is found in clumps in the brain, he knew that he had discovered something that no one else had seen in football players. He gave it the name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. For him, “Chronic stood for something that took a long time to develop; Traumatic stood for something related to or associated with trauma; and Encephalopathy stood for a sick brain.”

Dr. Omalu co-published a paper with his boss from Allegheny County Coroner’s office, Cyril Wecht, and with his former University of Pittsburgh professor. The paper, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player,” was published in the journal, Neurosurgery. It sent shockwaves through the NFL. The NFL immediate went all out to discredit and intimidate Dr. Omalu. They led a campaign to try and force him to retract his article and to silence him. Bennet thought the NFL was saying to him, “We own this field. We are not about to bow to some no-name Nigerian with a bullshit theory.”

Dr. Omalu refused to retract his article, so the NFL then published sixteen papers in Neurosurgery in order to discredit Bennet’s findings.

One brain was not enough to prove concussions caused this disease.

Dr. Omalu got what he needed—an ally from a former NFL doctor of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Julian Bailes, who helped him get more brains from deceased football players—players who exhibited abnormal behavior similar to Mike Webster. Dr. Omalu found the same clumps of tau protein in those brains. He now had discovered a pattern—a pattern of football players who died at an early age, who had severe mental problems and who had received multiple concussive hits while playing football—all of them with this tau protein in an abnormal place in the brain.

Dr. Omalu did not know anything about football. All he knew about were the brains of football players who lived in pain, suffering, and extreme mental illness after playing the game. About the game of football, Dr. Omalu thought to himself, “It hurts so much that you have to bubble-wrap your body, maybe you should play something different.” He learned about the tremendous force on the head when a player gets “blind-sided” by a vicious hit. He became more aware of the actual impacts players were taking, and that the linemen (those in the very front) who lower their heads when blocking take head hits almost every play—and this led him to study about multiple hits to the head that were at the sub-concussive level. He made scientific calculations that showed these linemen, like Mike Webster, took thousands of these hits to their heads that resulted in sub-concussive hits.

He read studies about helmets and improved helmet technology and came to the conclusion: “Helmets are not the answer. The brain has a certain amount of play inside the skull. It’s buoyed up in the cerebral spinal fluid. It sits in this fluid, floats. When the head suddenly stops, the brain continues and reverberates back.… So you could have padding that’s a foot thick, but that not going to change the acceleration/deceleration phenomena.”

The NFL was stung by Dr. Omalu’s finding. The “cats were out of the bag” and articles started appearing everywhere, asking, “Are players being killed by football?”

The NFL is an $8 billion business. It promotes a culture of violence and misogyny that is as “American as apple pie.” A big part of this country comes to a stop on the Sundays when the games are being played. The NFL could not allow this extremely negative fact that its players were being found to have this horrible life-ending disease caused by the game they played.

The FBI was brought in to investigate Dr. Omalu’s boss Dr. Cyril Wecht. They confiscated boxes of records and then charged Dr. Wecht with a bunch of bullshit charges, like using the office’s fax machine for personal faxes or having an employee walk his dog. The feds threatened Dr. Omalu with deportation unless he testified against Dr. Wecht. Dr. Wecht told Dr. Omalu, “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day.” In the movie, he says to Dr. Omalu, “The NFL owns Sunday, like the church used to.”

And that’s what the rest of the book is about—the war between Dr. Omalu and the NFL. The war is not over, but as more brains of deceased players are examined, the more the NFL spends to try to control the science and research of CTE. At the same time, books and movies like Concussion and those who write about CTE in football keep the focus on this important issue about the health of those who play the game. And some of us can even tell you that a new world is required and is possible that will put an end to this madness of racism, of opposing science, and of corporations owning a day of a week.

Dr. Omalu is currently the Chief Medical Examiner of San Joaquin County in California. He was asked to be the medical examiner of prestigious Washington, DC, coroner’s office but turned that down when Prema reminded him that was not what he was about. Earlier he says, “The important thing is the discovery, and what you can do for the world, and how it can help people. No (it’s) not (about) you. You were just the messenger.”

In the book, Dr. Omalu speaks a lot about racism and how he thinks that is a large part of why he has been attacked. The discovery of CTE is very damaging to football. No matter who discovered it, whether they were white or Black, the NFL would have gone after them to discredit their findings. So being African or Black was not the principal aspect of why he was so viciously gone after. It was because of what he discovered.

He does have some thinking about being Black in the U.S. and he reflects on that at the end of the book on how he thinks that pertains to him:

...I do think there’s a mind-set—no matter how much we may want to deny it in this country—a perception of blackness. And sometimes it’s a subconscious mind-set. Where anything associated with blackness has a negative connotation. This mind-set has a very fundamental assumption. A false assumption that black people cannot be intelligent.

I think this is my story to an extent. It’s a manifestation of a way of thinking.

Like Albert Einstein has said. He said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

The movie, which is based on the book, is not favorable to the NFL as it shows how Dr. Omalu (Will Smith) along with his two allies, Dr. Wecht (Albert Brooks) and Dr. Bailes (Alec Baldwin) take on the NFL and all the NFL throws at Dr. Omalu to force him to back down and to discredit his findings. The truth and those fighting for the truth are considered and treated by the NFL as “mortal” enemies.

The movie is riveting as you follow Dr. Omalu through his research to find out what is causing these former NFL players to become seriously mentally ill and then to commit suicide.

There has been controversy around the movie where Sony was criticized for making some deletions in order to “prevent the NFL from protesting the film.” So, there is a question of whether the film was softened so Sony could continue to work with the NFL. However, after seeing the movie, I don’t think it was soft on the NFL.

I was just listening to a sports talk radio program where the two announcers were discussing concussions and that there is this movie that people are talking about. Despite not seeing the movie, they thought that football has to improve on trying to reduce the “bone jarring” hits to the head. But they were also saying, “Well, you get concussions when you fall off a bicycle, so what’s really the problem?” A person called in, who had seen the movie, and he told them that they don’t understand. What he learned from the movie is that there are all these multiple hits, both at the concussive level and sub-concussive level, that all add up during a player’s career and causes this horrible and debilitating disease. And this is a serious problem because these players are never diagnosed as having a serous concussion, so they are allowed to continue playing. So, one of the announcers said, “I’m going to have to see this movie.

Everyone should check out this movie.

1. "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic sub-concussive hits to the head. CTE has been known to affect boxers since the 1920s. However, recent reports have been published of neuropathologically confirmed CTE in retired professional football players and other athletes who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia." (Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy) [back]



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