In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a young pathologist from Nigeria working in the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office in Pennsylvania, performed an autopsy on Mike Webster, the retired legendary center of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Omalu had never heard of Webster. Then again, as journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas pointed out in a recent phone interview from her home in Pittsburgh, “He didn’t really know what football was.”
Laskas believes that Omalu’s outsider status helped him pursue a truth the National Football League was slow to acknowledge: Playing football can cause brain damage. She first wrote about Omalu in a 2009 GQ article called “Game Brain.” That article became the basis for a film called “Concussion,” starring Will Smith as Omalu, to be released Dec. 25, and for Laskas’s new book by the same name.
The youngest son of a government official, Omalu was born as his family fled their village during the Nigerian civil war in 1968. He completed his medical education at the University of Nigeria, but in 1994, disenchanted with the country’s political situation, he immigrated to the United States. He did additional training in Seattle and New York before signing on as a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh.
In his autopsy of Webster, who was thought to have died of a heart attack, Omalu found that the brain at first looked normal. But he learned that Webster had behaved bizarrely in the last years of his life, and had often been homeless despite the assistance of friends and former teammates, so he decided to take a closer look. Microscopically, he observed, Webster’s brain resembled the brains of boxers suffering with dementia and psychiatric disorders after years in the ring. After performing autopsies on several other NFL retirees, Omalu concluded that football, like boxing, can cause a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Over a career, a player might experience the equivalent of thousands of car accidents, during which the brain is jostled within the skull, and for which a helmet offers no protection.
Research by Omalu, scientists at Boston University’s CTE Center, and others ultimately led thousands of former players and their families, including that of Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012 not long after ending his career with the Patriots, to sue the NFL. The league did not publicly acknowledge the connection between football and CTE until 2009, seven years after Omalu first described it. Despite the NFL’s current protocol for diagnosing and managing concussions, players remain at risk.
As a result of increasing awareness of the potential hazards of playing football, enrollment in youth programs is down. But America’s enthusiasm for the sport hasn’t waned. “It’s this conversation we keep almost having in America,” Laskas said. “I liken it to tobacco, years back. You didn’t want to quit smoking, so you didn’t really want to know it was that bad. And, similar to tobacco, you have this billion dollar industry, the NFL, making sure you don’t pay attention to it.”
Laskas, like Omalu, is a bit of an outsider in relation to this story. “I’m not a sportswriter,” she noted. She isn’t even a lifelong football fan — though in Pittsburgh, she said, rooting for the Steelers is “unavoidable.” What attracted her to the story was the intriguing character of Omalu. The doctor’s habit of speaking to his autopsy subjects and asking them for guidance is just one of his many quirks.
Today, Omalu is chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California, and a professor at University of California Davis School of Medicine. What’s his reaction to “Concussion,” the book and movie — not to mention a foundation started in his name at the University of Pittsburgh, dedicated to research on CTE and traumatic brain injuries? Laskas answered, “Utter delight. People are finally listening to what he’s been trying to say.”