By Ann Liguori
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Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who made the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and named the disease after studying former Steelers center Mike Webster’s brain 14 years ago, gave a most fascinating keynote address on Long Island on Wednesday.
The occasion was the 10th annual Head Injury Awareness Celebrity Sports Forum, organized by Liz Giordano, CEO of the Head Injury Association. The 400-plus people in the audience included school officials, athletic directors, trainers, coaches and athletes.
I had the pleasure of sharing the emcee duties with CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez and sat on a panel that included Giants Hall of Famer Harry Carson, former Jets Rich Caster, Marty Lyons and John Nitti, former heavyweight boxer Gerry Cooney, and Maxcine Agee, the wife of the late Mets star Tommie Agee.
It’s taken over 14 years for the Nigerian-born Omalu, now a U.S. citizen, to be widely recognized for his discovery, not that Omalu craves recognition. The film “Concussion” starring Will Smith as Omalu helped educate the masses about Omalu’s discovery and how the NFL attempted to discredit him. He was threatened and bullied for years.
It was only recently that an official from the NFL admitted football’s connection to the brain disease.
His message was clear Wednesday: Parents need to be educated about the consequences of letting their kids play a contact sport in which their heads are getting struck even if they are wearing helmets.
“If you saw a parent or somebody striking a child in the head, you would call the cops!”said Omalu, in his passionate, high-pitched voice. He said that it is unfathomable that we allow kids under the age of 12 to play football or any contact sports.
Giordano agrees. “Children under the age of 12 do not have the bone or muscle or brain development to sustain an impact. Of course, wearing a helmet is better than not, but it does not provide adequate protection to keep the player safe.”
When I asked Omalu afterward how he felt about an NFL official finally admitting that there is a connection between football and CTE, Omalu replied: “No, no, no. As a society, we shouldn’t get excited by that. There is a reason why the NFL is admitting that now. The issue is, what is that reason? What is their motive? But I congratulate them.
“I love the NFL. People may be surprised by that. I’m a capitalist. I have an MBA from one of the best business schools in the nation — Carnegie Mellon. I want the NFL as a corporation to make as much money as possible. If they need my advice, I’ll advise them on how to make even more money.
And one way they could even make more money is to admit wholeheartedly and openly and sincerely that playing football can damage your brain permanently. That is the truth. That is a fact. The truth is enlightening. The truth is empowering. The truth will set you free. And so I strongly encourage them to come out openly to embrace and then from the enlightenment of the truth, with time, we’ll find solutions. Let people know, just like we do with smoking, that if you play this game, not just football, high-impact contact sports — boxing, ice hockey, mixed martial arts, wrestling, rugby — that if you play these games, there is a risk of brain damage. Let people make up their minds. But we shouldn’t let children play because as a modern society, it is our duty to protect our children from any risk whatsoever. That is a fundamental premise of our modern society. We must protect our children.”
Omalu’s talk lasted nearly an hour, as he shared his incredible story of growing up in war-torn Nigeria and overcoming his small statue, low self-esteem and depression, using the “power of knowledge,” becoming a physician by the age of 21 and going on to earn eight different degrees and certifications.
He spoke a lot about faith.
“My life is a manifestation of science and faith walking together like brothers and sisters,” he said. “Faith should synergize science, and science should synergize faith. They have a common end point — the truth.
“And what is the truth? The truth is God. One thing about science — I have eight degrees and certifications, but I’ve realized that in science, the more you know, the more you realize what you do not know. There’s no end to it. We can never get to the end of the universe. And that means that the end is God, whatever you consider that to be. So I think for each and every one of us, we should not be afraid to embrace faith in our lives. It’s a good thing.”
He talked about love and the community of mankind. “I met Mike Webster in death. And I made a promise to Mike Webster (who suffered from dementia, seizures and depression, was homeless, and died in his 50s) that I would get to the bottom of this, and when I discovered CTE, when you do something out of love, you step out boldly into the light. … I believe sincerely that what I was doing was not about me, but I was simply being a vessel of God’s hope and love to others and using my education to become the voice for the voiceless because I realize these players were suffering in silence and obscurity.”
Harry Carson, who was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome years ago, praised Omalu for “digging deeper than anyone else. … He is a hero to all who have played football.”
Carson went on to say that “this is not just an issue for football, but for all contact sports.”
He said he was the only non-Steeler who went to Webster’s funeral. “I knew something was going on, and when this discovery was made, I felt somewhat vindicated,” admitted Carson.
Marty Lyons, the Jets radio analyst, said he “does not hold the NFL responsible.” We’re educated on the risks we’re taking. … Life is about opportunities and choices.”
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