Meet the Real Dr. Bennet Omalu
When it premiered in 2013, League of Denial – FRONTLINE’s landmark documentary revealing the hidden history of the NFL and brain injuries — sparked a national conversation among fans, players and parents about the nature and future of football.
That conversation continues this month with the upcoming release of Concussion — starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who first found the disease at the center of the debate around head injuries in football: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, otherwise known as CTE.
When FRONTLINE met Omalu in 2013, he said that he never imagined his research would pose an existential threat to the NFL’s future. But that’s precisely what happened in 2002 with his discovery of CTE in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers legend Mike Webster.
Get the backstory on the real Dr. Bennet Omalu through these eight takeaways from his in-depth interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk:
Omalu grew up in Nigeria and knew next to nothing about football.
As a child, the man who would one day make a discovery that would shake the NFL, had very little knowledge of the game. “I never had any reasonable encounter with football,” Omalu said. “I saw football on Sky News. I thought there were people dressed like extraterrestrials, you know, like they were going to Mars or something, headgears and shoulder pads. And I wondered why as a child, why did they have to dress that way.”
Then came Mike Webster.
On the day that he was scheduled to examine Steelers great Mike Webster, who died at age 50, Omalu arrived at his Pittsburgh office to find commotion outside. He made his way through the people that had amassed, and once inside, he asked what was going on. One of the technicians told him Mike Webster was on the table, but Omalu had to ask who that was.
“Everybody looked at me like: ‘Where is he from? … Who is this guy who doesn’t know Mike Webster in Pittsburgh?'”
When he examined Webster, Omalu found changes that amounted to the first hard evidence that playing football could cause lasting brain damage.
“I had to make sure the slides were Mike Webster’s slides,” Omalu told FRONTLINE. “I looked again. I saw changes that shouldn’t be in a 50-year-old man’s brains, and also changes that shouldn’t be in a brain that looked normal.”
He used what he learned in business classes to come up with the name CTE.
Omalu had been attending Carnegie Mellon University, and had taken classes in brand management — classes that he says came in handy as he thought through what to call his discovery: “I know in branding, a name is very important, and not just a name, a name people can remember, a name that has a good acronym.”
Omalu thought the NFL would be eager to engage with his research.
“I thought naively that discovery of new information, unraveling new information, redefining concepts, I thought the football industry would embrace it,” Omalu said, adding that based on his business experience, he thought the league would adapt his findings into “some type of utility function” to enhance the game and make it both safer and more profitable. “That was what I thought in my naive state of mind,” he said. But many inside football didn’t want to hear it, he said, though he doesn’t understand why. “There are things that are just beyond me,” said Omalu.
League doctors wanted his research retracted.
After Omalu published his findings, league doctors assailed his research — even going so far as to issue a letter calling for a retraction. Omalu said he was stunned to learn about the demand, afraid his career was coming to an end. He poured himself a shot of Johnnie Walker Red and “just gulped it down” before reading the letter. But after reading the first paragraph and the accusations it contained, Omalu said he was reassured that the claims were baseless and he was in the right. He said to himself, “‘How can a nobody like me know the subject better than the top three NFL doctors who are in charge of trauma in the NFL?'”
That wouldn’t be the last time he faced pushback.
Omalu later had the chance to study the brain of Terry Long, a former NFL player who killed himself by drinking antifreeze. Afterwards, Omalu was called to a meeting at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where he says a prominent NFL physician asked him three times if he understood the implications of what he was doing. Omalu said twice that yes, he did, but the doctor insisted that he didn’t.
So the third time, Omalu turned to him and said, “OK, why don’t you tell me what the implications are?” The doctor’s response, according to Omalu: “He said, ‘Your work suggests or is suggesting or is proving that football is a dangerous sport, and that if 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.'”
He believes there’s “something un-American” about organized football not presenting players with the dangers of head injuries.
“Some people, while adding value to entertain us, while contributing to the American experience, pay the ultimate price with their lives, and unfortunately were not aware while they were entertaining us that they were slowly losing their lives,” Omalu said. “And then when players lost their lives after retirement and started manifesting the symptoms of CTE, they were dismissed as losers, as irresponsible, as people who were not intellectually capable to compete outside the protection football afforded them … There is something un-American about that.”
He believes every single NFL player has CTE.
Asked how many NFL players in the game right now have CTE, Omalu responded:
“Based on my experience, there has not been any NFL player I’ve examined that did not have CTE … Now, the degrees of advancement of the disease will be different, and they have different types. So my opinion is, based on my experience, is all of them.”
Watch FRONTLINE’s League of Denial for more on the real Omalu and how the NFL reacted to his discovery — and to explore the full story of what the NFL knew about the link between football and traumatic brain injury and when:
FRONTLINE’s two-part broadcast of the documentary airs on many PBS stations Dec. 15 and Dec. 22 and will include several updates to this original 2013 story.