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‘It feels like a vendetta against me.’ BU rescinds award to ‘Concussion’ trailblazer

FILE — Dr. Bennet Omalu, who identified a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head hits, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Jan. 2007. Will Smith portrays Omalu in the film “Concussion.” In dozens of emails unearthed by hackers, Sony Pictures executives and others discussed altering the script and marketing the movie more as a whistle blower story than as a condemnation of the NFL. (Lisa Renee Kyle/The New York Times)
FILE/Lisa Renee Kyle/The New York Times
Dr. Bennet Omalu was notified in April that the Boston University School of Public Health planned to award him its highest honor.

The Boston University School of Public Health has dropped its plans to give an award to a trailblazing researcher of brain injuries in athletes just days after the doctor was quoted in an article questioning the direction of concussion research by an organization with ties to BU.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was played by the actor Will Smith in the recent movie “Concussion,” was notified in April that the Boston University School of Public Health planned to award him its highest honor at the school’s 40th anniversary gala in November.

But this week, he said, he got a call from Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the BU School of Public Health.

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Galea’s message, delivered after Omalu was quoted in a Sunday Boston Globe story about a potential conflict of interest involving World Wrestling Entertainment and the BU-affiliated Concussion Legacy Foundation, was succinct: Omalu would no longer be a recipient of the school’s esteemed Beyond Health Award.

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“What I find very surprising is the timing of this, right after the [Globe] article,’’ Omalu said in an interview. “It feels like a vendetta against me.’’

On Wednesday, Omalu asked Galea to state in writing why the award had been rescinded. Galea sent a letter expressing his apologies and stating ““the gala event has evolved in the last month and we have had to change our programming.’’

“We will be highlighting people with closer connections to our School of Public Health as we mark our 40th anniversary,’’ Galea wrote.

Omalu was taken aback by the decision, considering Galea had sent him a letter in April expressing “great pleasure to honor you with the Beyond Health Award in recognition of your research, discovery, and activism on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) by examining American football players.’’

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Galea’s letter had further lauded Omalu, whose struggle to document CTE in the National Football League was chronicled in the 2015 film “Concussion.’’

Omalu is a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist. His autopsy of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster led to his 2002 discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players. Omalu is currently chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, Calif., and is a professor in the UC Davis Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, according to his website.

Omalu once partnered with Chris Nowinski, who chairs the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The foundation is affiliated with the BU School of Medicine’s CTE Center and a brain bank also operated by BU and the US Veterans Administration. Nowinski also has authored research papers with faculty of the BU School of Public Health

Omalu and Nowinski had a bitter falling out in 2007 after they formed the Sports Legacy Institute, which became the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

As they follow separate paths at the forefront of CTE research, there remains animosity between them.

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Nowinski, who suffered career-ending brain injuries in 2003 as a WWE performer, was criticized in the Sunday Globe article by several professional wrestlers for not aggressively procuring the brains of deceased wrestlers to document CTE in the business, as he has done so effectively with football players.

Omalu was quoted in the story as saying the study of possible CTE in professional wrestling remains vital, considering the relatively small amount of research to date. The story also reported that Omalu has agreed to examine the brains of three professional wrestlers who died this year under the age of 50.

Nowinski did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment, and a BU spokesman declined to comment on whether Nowinski played any role in the decision.

A BU Web page on the 40th anniversary gala continued to state Thursday that “three outstanding Beyond Health Awardees’’ will be honored in November, although only two names remained on the page: Larry Kessler, a pioneering Massachusetts AIDS activist, and Janice Cooper, who leads the Carter Center Mental Health Program’s project in Liberia.

The Atlanta-based Carter Center was founded by former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.

The Globe asked Galea to explain how Cooper fits the school’s profile of an awardee while Omalu no longer does. BU spokesman Colin Riley responded in a prepared statement, “Dean Galea is giving the keynote address at the Carter Center’s November meeting and spoke at their annual meeting a few years ago. The decisions on the invitees are the dean’s.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.