Bennet Omalu, a Nigeria-born neuropathologist, first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in an NFL player when he saw the debilitating disease in the brain of Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who died in 2002. This finding sparked a chain of events that ultimately forced the NFL to settle a class-action lawsuit from retired players and raised unprecedented awareness of the dangers of football head trauma.
In the much-anticipated film Concussion, which came out Dec. 25, Will Smith portrays Omalu, talks about the future of head trauma research, his detractors, and thoughts on the new movie.
Right now, CTE can only be officially diagnosed post-mortem. How close are we to finding a way to diagnose CTE in the living?
CTE can be diagnosed in the living. Just like Alzheimer’s disease can be diagnosed in the living. And when you make such diagnosis, it is based on the continuation of symptoms. The prevailing clinical scenario of the patient.
To make a diagnosis, all you need is a reasonable degree of certainly. But now we, as pathologists, need more objective measures because symptoms, to a certain degree, are subjective. We need markers: biochemical markets, radiological markers. But we should also realize that radiological markers, biochemical markers wouldn’t give 100% degree of certainly. It is not an absolute science. It’s not an absolute science like physics or mathematics.
In my opinion, taking professional football players as a cohort, I think over 90% of American football players suffer from this disease. Over 90% of players who play to the professional level have some degree of this disease. I have not examined any brain of a retired football player that came back negative.
They could have maybe minimal symptoms, mild symptoms, moderate symptoms, or severe symptoms. I meet with retired football players. Some are well-dressed, some are well-spoken, but when you talk to them personally they will admit to you that they are having problems. But they are managing their problems. They have impaired memory, they’re having mood problems. They are being treated by their psychiatrists. So I think 90 to 100% of all of them will have some residual problem from their exposure to thousands of blows to the head.
This was why, when I came across this disease, I sent a letter to the NFL: let us have a prospective study to examine the brain of every retired NFL player who died. This is the best way to confirm that we’re not speculating. When I proposed this they did not even acknowledge our letter.
The attacks and backlash against your CTE research form the tension of the Concussion movie. Do you think your race played a significant role in the attacks?
Yes. Let me tell you, the establishment was really upset with me because I was in my 30s when I did this, I was a foreigner, and I’m an African-American. The NIH put together a committee to define a diagnosis. You know they never invited me? The man who described the disease. The NIH, even doctors in high places, why don’t you leave Omalu alone? I feel like the movie has shown I was acting out of love, because I love this country.
I mean when I say I wish I never met Mike Webster. I mean every word of it. I wish. I. Never. Met. Mike Webster. I would have been left alone!