Baseball may still be billed as the national pastime, but football actually surpassed it in popularity a long time ago. So for anyone born and raised in the United States, challenging the NFL is just unthinkable.
Dr. Bennet Omalu wasn’t born and raised in this country, however. Had he been, it’s doubtful that the forensic neuropathologist from Nigeria would have discovered CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative disease associated with repeated brain trauma that doesn’t show symptoms, and its connection to the NFL. He would never have felt the wrath of the NFL, either, and we wouldn’t have Concussion, which marks Will Smith’s finest performance to date.
The Root caught up with the good doctor for a one-on-one discussion about the film, his faith, his wife’s support and his status with the NFL.
The Root: When you turned down this road, did you have any idea of the magnitude of your actions?
Bennet Omalu: Remember, I grew up in Africa. Growing up as a child, I perceived America to be heaven on earth, a country that was closest to what God wants us to be as his sons and daughters. And I came from Nigeria, which is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. So when I came here, I had the study of Mike Webster and other retired football players, and I wondered: If they played this game where they had to wear a helmet, could it be they were damaging their brains without knowing it?
And so I did the autopsy on Mike Webster. I identified the disease and I most gladly took it to the NFL, believing that I had discovered something that would enhance the game. But then I got this pushback, and I discovered there was this systematic and systemic cover-up to conceal the truth. So that reawakened my faith in me, my faith in the truth.
God is the truth. The American experience and the American experiment are founded on the truth. Science was founded on the truth. My faith is founded on the truth. So you have a convergence of both science and America, my faith, coming together to this common objective or common exploit of the truth.
So it was my search for the truth, to become part of that American family, to contribute my part to a society and a country that has given me so much. Because, as the greater American family, we are one love, we are one spirit, we are one hope, we are one joy. So that was what kept me going. Because when you seek the truth, truth shall set you free.
The truth is liberating. Isn’t that what America is all about? One person at a time, one step at a time, one day at a time, we shall continue to build a greater family, if only we would start by the truth. That is what kept me going.
TR: Is the truth still leading you?
BO: Yes, the truth is still leading me. Meeting people like Will Smith, like Peter Landesman, the director, these are people who have reaffirmed my perception of America as a land of perfection. Will Smith epitomizes that perfection. He is such a pristine man. Such a good man. Has such a good heart.
What is going on now is that my story is beginning to reach out to other members of the American family who have been touched and now taking the torch, like Will Smith is doing, the movie is doing, Sony is doing, Ridley Scott is doing; taking this story from the depths of the valley to the mountaintop, or the peak of the mountain of the American psyche, to increase awareness, to enlighten people of the dangers of exposing your head to repeated force.
Don’t get me wrong—this is not anti-football, this is not anti-sports, this is not anti-NFL. This is just about the truth. Because when you walk with the truth or by the truth, the impossible will become possible, which is what the American dream is about.
TR: So, again, you had no idea what football means in this country?
BO: I did not even know what football was. I did not know what the NFL was. All I knew was that this was a game that people dressed up to play. It was called football, but they threw the ball with their hand. I wondered why it was called football, and then I wondered why they had to wear helmets. I didn’t know how big it was. And that may have been what made me to keep on keeping on.
But when I realized how big the NFL was, I was not in fear. I did not fear because of my faith. We were called to not be afraid. Do not be afraid. That “the Lord is my light and salvation—of whom should I fear? The Lord is my stronghold—of who shall I be afraid of?”
TR: You never had any doubts?
BO: As a human being, there were moments I had my doubts. There was those down times where I regretted ever meeting Mike Webster. There were days I just wanted to be left alone. But as my doubts became deeper, the stronger my faith became. And luckily, my wife would advise me: “Bennet, people made sacrifices for you to be where you are. Sixty years ago you may not have been allowed to even walk into some hotels. People fought and died for that. Nothing good comes easy. That it is your call to become the sacrificial lamb. They need you to become the voice of the voiceless. You are a highly educated man. Use your education that the God Almighty has given you; use it as an instrument of God’s peace and become the voice for the voiceless.”
TR: Are you still doing your research?
BO: Yes, in the past two years, because of the movie, I pretty much suspended everything just to focus on the movie, but I still examine brains. I’m still doing research of brains. If people buy the book Concussion—it’s everywhere now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble—it goes into greater depth about my story.
And also visit the website called BennetOmaluFoundation.org. It was set up by Ridley Scott, the great director in Hollywood, and his wife, Giannina Scott. They are both producers of this movie. Ridley dreams that we can find a cure for CTE, and that is what this country is about, the land of dreams, where people dream big dreams.
You dream the impossible. You dream to make the impossible possible. So I think, again, this is about the great American story. Like Will Smith has said, that it is only in America that you can have a Will Smith. And I agree with him. It is only in America that my story could be true.
TR: When did the film start, and how involved were you?
BO: It started in 2009, about six years ago. I was involved through the entire process, so it is an accurate depiction of the historical events.
TR: Was it important that your wife, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, be in the film?
BO: She didn’t want to be part of the movie. The director convinced her because she was emotional. She was there when I was treated so poorly.
TR: Are you still public enemy No. 1 to the NFL?
BO: I’m nobody’s enemy. Nobody is my enemy. I carry love in my heart. I love everybody, but I stand by the truth.
Editor’s note: Concussion opens nationwide on Christmas Day.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.