MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you are one of the millions of people who loves football or if you are one of the millions of people who plans to catch up on the big movies over the Christmas holidays, then you probably have the movie "Concussion" on your must-see list. The film stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who has done as much as anyone to sound the alarm about the effect of repeated head trauma on football players, effects that have now become part of the national conversation about America's most-watched sport. We actually have the real Dr. Bennet Omalu with us now from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Hello, Dr. Omalu, welcome.
BENNET OMALU: Hi, how are you? Thank you having me.
MARTIN: The film opens with a very sobering story - the story of the Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster. He was called Iron Mike. When he died of cardiac arrest back in 2002, it made national headlines because here's a guy who had had multiple Super Bowl rings, and then at the time of his death, he was living in his truck. He had this history of erratic behavior. He had just had a very sad end. So what made you look at his brain?
OMALU: So when I heard about the story of Mike Webster - his life after retirement, his destitution - I empathized with him. I thought he was suffering from a psychological ailment, that he was obviously misunderstood, just like I was misunderstood because I suffered major depression in medical school. I was expecting his brain to look like dementia pugilistica patient or Alzheimer's disease. But when I opened up his skull, his brain looked normal (laughter). I remember that moment very vividly. I was so downcast, totally confused. And I felt I had let down Mike Webster. So I went back and searched and searched the literature, and I ever saw any report of something like dementia pugilistica on a football player.
MARTIN: So let me stop you there. You are credited with identifying and describing what we now call CTE, which is chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Tell me if you would why it is that this repeated head trauma produces such negative results in human beings.
OMALU: OK. Like it said in the movie - I hope I'm not giving out too much - Will Smith said God did not create man to play football. The human brain floats freely inside the human skull. So when you have an impact, the so-called sub-concussive blows cause microscopic injuries in your brain. Over time, after you've sustained hundreds to thousands of these blows, there is permanent brain damage. The brain begins to accumulate abnormal proteins, and it will eventually strangle or kill the cells, like it said in the movie. And in some time - it may take weeks, months, years, decades, sometimes up to 40 years later - and you now begin to manifest with symptoms like mood disorders, major depression, suicidal attempts, disinhibition.
MARTIN: There's a scene in the movie, which has now become famous from the trailer, where you meet with this neurologist who's on the NFL's side. And you demand that he tell the truth - that, you know, tell the truth about this. But his response is what I want to play because what he talks about is how important this game is.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONCUSSION")
WILL SMITH: (As Dr. Bennet Omalu) Tell the truth.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The truth.
SMITH: (As Dr. Bennet Omalu) The truth.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The truth is that the NFL is a blessing and a salvation, my friend. We employ hundreds of thousands of people. We send the thousands and thousands of poor kids to school. The ownership of this football club has donated millions of dollars to countless charities. Do you want me to go on?
MARTIN: How you feel about that argument?
OMALU: This movie is not anti-football. It is about our lives as Americans. Whatever you do in life, no matter what your intentions or motivations may be, if you do not accept the truth - because there can only be one truth - you will have problem.
MARTIN: But you really thought that the NFL would welcome your work, that they would be happy to know that you had solved this puzzle. Is that true?
OMALU: Yes, I thought it had a proposition of value. It was a product that would enhance football and enhance the lives and the safety and health of the players.
MARTIN: And when did you realize that it wasn't actually going to be that way, and in fact, it was going to be the opposite?
OMALU: I got a call from one of the editors of the journal. I remember that day vividly. The NFL made a very calculated, mean attempt to decapitate me professionally. If your scientific paper is retracted, you are finished in that profession. I could have as well gone back to Nigeria to become a massage therapist.
MARTIN: Did you ever consider retracting it?
OMALU: No. I had spent hundreds of hours researching this subject, and I had met the families of the sufferers of this disease. They were suffering in silence. They were suffering in obscurity. And it offended my sense of America. I ran away from corruption in Nigeria because my country, Nigeria, is one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world. To come here, what I was seeing in this place, in my opinion, I thought was un-American.
MARTIN: You must feel vindicated.
OMALU: I think the players and their families are vindicated. This has never been about me. Now...
MARTIN: Do you feel though, speaking of the players, that football is doing enough to minimize harm?
OMALU: Well, I'm not an expert in football or an expert in the NFL. Those are above my pay grade. But I will share with you real-life event and let you make up your mind. In the settlement with the players, I don't know if people are aware, the NFL excluded CTE diagnosis as a justification for settlement.
MARTIN: I think you're referring to the fact that in 2013, they NFL settled a lawsuit with former players...
OMALU: But they excluded CTE as a qualifying disease for settlement, OK?
MARTIN: What is the implication of that?
OMALU: Is this an indication of an organization that has taken serious steps about CTE? Let the people watch the movie. In fact, what I challenge us to do as a family, let us all go and watch the movie. Let us all make up our own minds.
MARTIN: OK. So before we let you go - and thank you - and are congratulations in order? Are you pleased with it?
OMALU: I think Will Smith's acting reaffirms my belief in the American perfection. Will Smith epitomizes that perfection.
MARTIN: How do you feel about his accent?
OMALU: He did well. In fact, my wife heard it the first he came to our house - so my wife had her back turned. I think she was going to get something. But he started speaking, and my wife turned, said yes, Bennet, what do you want? And she turned, said excuse me. Who - where's Bennet? And so...
MARTIN: (Laughter) Did you really?
MARTIN: Dr. Bennet Omalu's life and work on brain injuries in football players is the subject of the new film "Concussion." Dr. Omalu, thank you so much for speaking with us.
OMALU: Thank you so much. God bless you.
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