The Truth Seeker
Sitting Down With… Bennet Omalu, President and Medical Director of Bennet Omalu Pathology
Did you always want to go into medicine?
Growing up, I never wanted to become a doctor – I wanted to be a pilot! But I grew up in Nigeria and, at the time, the societal norm was for the smartest kids to go to medical school – and that’s what my parents asked me to do. I didn’t want to go against my parents or the tide of societal expectations, so I took the exams and began studying medicine. I actually dropped out temporarily due to some difficult personal circumstances but, once I returned, I promised myself that I would specialize in a field that was far removed from traditional medicine. That’s how I found myself in forensic pathology!
Having said that, I love taking care of the most vulnerable in our society – the dead. My favorite part of the job is speaking to them, understanding them through the language of pathology, advocating for them, and blessing their loved ones with my findings. Through our interaction with the dead, we bless the living and enrich their lives.
You were the first to describe chronic traumatic encephalopathy and highlight its link to contact sports in 2002. Why did it take society so long to realize and react?
It’s because of a phenomenon I call “conformational intelligence” (CI), whereby a person’s intelligence, mentality, and perception of the environment is unknowingly controlled by the norms, traditions, and expectations of the community that they belong to. I believe that CI dampens emotional intelligence and inhibits innovative or disruptive thinking, instead guiding one to conform to what is already accepted. When objective evidence is presented that challenges someone’s conformed cast of the mind, they engage in cognitive dissonance and reject it. Eventually, they become emotional and tribal to protect that conformity.
American football is accepted by society as America’s beloved national game. If I had grown up in the US, there is no way I could have carried out Mike Webster’s autopsy; I would never have saved his brain and examined it to discover chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It took an outsider like myself – without any conformational intelligence around football – to think objectively without being influenced by traditions. American society dismissed me when I first discovered CTE and, when I persisted, many people – including the National Football League (NFL) – reacted emotionally by calling me all types of names. Even fellow doctors rejected me and attempted to nullify my work, claiming that they were the ones who discovered CTE! In the 21st century, especially in this era of social media, we need to beware of CI, because it has the potential to hold society back.
How has perception toward sports-based head injuries changed over the past decade?
I think there has been a phenomenal transformation in how people perceive high-impact sports, including football, ice hockey, and boxing – and even lower-impact sports like soccer and lacrosse. The movie “Concussion” played a crucial role in inducing this transformation. I call it the Will Smith effect: members of society who are better-educated and have higher socio-economic status are now removing their children from such dangerous, brain-unfriendly sports. I believe that, with time, only children from lower socio-economic backgrounds will play these sports – and this epidemiological trend is already beginning to manifest itself.
Knowing what we do today, there is no reason for a child younger than 18 to play high-impact sports – especially as this is the age of consent and when adulthood begins. Science has shown that, if a child plays football for one season, they can suffer permanent brain damage. Even if they only play one game of football, there is a 100 percent risk of exposure to brain damage. We are a species that continually evolves and becomes more intelligent, giving up the less intelligent ways of our past as we do so. And that’s why we don’t encourage children to smoke, or allow them to drink today – and why should sports be any different? The life of a child is the greatest gift to humankind and we should not degrade or undermine that life by intentionally exposing them to wholly avoidable brain damage.
How did you feel when your work on CTE was transformed into the Hollywood movie “Concussion?”
I was humbled! However, looking back now, I wish the movie had never been made, because it stole my life away from me. It’s a very difficult and painful experience for people to know who you are and recognize you, even when you want to do the most mundane things in life, such as walk down a street. It can sometimes be miserable, but if the movie has impacted lives in positive ways and even saved lives, then who am I? I am willing to sacrifice my life for that.
What goals do you still want to achieve?
Today, I run a successful private corporation and practice, for which I am deeply thankful. I want to continue to be myself as an African-American man despite the unique challenges we face as a cohort. Whatever tomorrow brings, I hope to enhance and restore the dignity and humanity of other human beings, one person at a time. My ultimate goal is to continue to be happy and joyful!
What advice would you give to others who wish to follow in your footsteps?
I would never advise anyone to follow in my footsteps; each and every person should create and follow their own unique path! Always strive to be yourself because there can never be another you – this is your only stage and your only time. Be bold, confident, and joyful in who you are and don’t be afraid of the judgment of others, because you are not being yourself if everyone likes you. The greatest gift you can give society is you!
Never be a conformist. The truth will always prevail – even if it takes a while – so, with everything you do, ask yourself whether you’re going to be on the side of the truth. What is the truth? It’s what enhances and uplifts the humanity and dignity of us all, and not just a select few or one person alone. And that’s the essence of my CTE story. By using my knowledge and education to vindicate Mike Webster, I was able to uphold his dignity and humanity and that of his family. It was this mindset that allowed me to succeed – it has never been about me, but about living the truth.
While completing my undergraduate degree in Biology, I soon discovered that my passion and strength was for writing about science rather than working in the lab. My master’s degree in Science Communication allowed me to develop my science writing skills and I was lucky enough to come to Texere Publishing straight from University. Here I am given the opportunity to write about cutting edge research and engage with leading scientists, while also being part of a fantastic team!