Dr Bennet Omalu on Will Smith "humility" and why focusing on concussion alone is "misappropriation of science"

Physician chats to Off The Ball's Joe Molloy about CTE and his story which is portrayed in 'Concussion'

BY Raf Diallo 20:34 Tuesday 9 February 2016, 20:34 9 Feb 2016

Dr. Bennet Omalu, left, and actor Will Smith pose together at the cast photo call for the film "Concussion" at The Crosby Street Hotel in New York. The movie releases in U.S. theaters on Dec. 25, 2015. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

Over the last few years, the growing recognition of the threat posed by concussion has started to take hold in American football and beyond.

But one man who has been central to getting the process started was Dr Bennet Omalu, who is portrayed by Hollywood star Will Smith in movie Concussion.

The Nigerian-American physician was the first medical professional to publish findings of the neurological condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in American football players.

Symptoms of CTE include aggression, memory loss and dementia.

Tonight on Off The Ball, Omalu joined Joe Molloy to talk about the extent of his work to the point that Hollywood has now taken interest.

"When I met Will Smith, I was stricken by his humility. He's an extremely humble individual," said Dr Omalu of the silver screen aspect of his story.

"If the great Will Smith will be so humble, who am I to become intoxicated by my transient fame or recognition. But right from the beginning, this has never been about me."

Moving onto his work on CTE, spoke about the process of examining the brain of former American footballer Mike Webster, who passed away in 2002.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, left, Co-Director, Brain Injury Research Institute, West Virginia University talks with Dr. Ira R. Casson, Neurologist and former co-chairman, NFL Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, before a House Judiciary Committee hearing entitled "Legal Issues Relating to Football Head Injuries, Part II" in Detroit, Monday, Jan. 4, 2010 (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

"I think it was an amalgamation of faith and science that made me even to save his brain. I had no reason examining that brain the way I did. I did not know what I was looking for," he said, before explaining that "helmets do not prevent these types of injuries" and impacts cause the brain to move around inside the skull, even if some symptoms are not immediate.

"But over the years, as you're exposed to thousands and thousands of blows in whatever activity without the helmet, at some point your brain suffers irreversible damage that becomes progressive and sometimes may take up to 40 years to manifest as a debilitating disease," he explained.

But he also believes that focusing solely on concussion alone rather than head blows as a general rule in the starkest terms is a mistake.

"The industry's focus on concussions is a misappropriation of the science which may be by default intentional or unintentional," he said, explaining that Webster suffered CTE without suffering concussion, among other examples.

Citing the likes of American football, rugby and boxing, he also feels it is "our moral duty to stop endangering our children by intentionally exposing them to high-impact contact sports at a young age", comparing it to the way cigarettes and alcohol are banned for children.

But he also spoke about how the NFL initially reacted to his findings as well as how he was "humiliated", treated like a non-entity and that he was even told by some dismissively that he was practicising "voodoo medicine", which led to tearful nights as portrayed in the movie.

"I don't think I've been accepted yet," he also told Joe. "Things still happen in my life that remind me I'm an outsider." 

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