Truth and Consequences

After taking on the National Football League with his stunning discovery about the long-term damaging effects of concussions, and then being portrayed by Will Smith in one of the most high-profile dramas of 2015, Dr. Bennet Omalu has now become a powerful voice for athletes, military veterans and children alike. Here’s how a Sacramento pathologist journeyed from a poverty-striken childhood in Nigeria to his new role as a global game changer in the world of science.

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Portrait by Joshua Bright

 

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Dr. Bennet Omalu perches on the edge of his seat, knees bent, feet planted, arms crooked, poised like a sprinter ready to leap off the blocks. His broad face is wide open, lit from within as he quotes Will Smith playing him in the movie Concussion: “God did not intend for us to play football!”

It’s late February, and Omalu is on stage with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who is interviewing him at the Guild Theater in Oak Park as part of Indivizible, Johnson’s African-American empowerment lecture series, before an audience that includes athletes, coaches, activists, religious leaders and community members of all stripes.

The real Bennet Omalu is both more intense and more joyous than Smith’s sober-minded portrayal of him. In person, Omalu quotes Scripture liberally, and can be funny and self-deprecating, not what you’d expect from the crusading firebrand pathologist who first discovered and documented a degenerative disease in the brains of NFL players, and who suffered years of slander and ostracism as a result.

Today he is prepared to voice uncomfortable truths not just to the NFL, but the mothers and fathers of all those future players. “The younger you are when you begin to play, the greater the damage,” he says. “In order to become educated, you need to have the acumen to pay attention, to keep away distractions and focus. Exposure to repeated blows takes away that acumen.”

He smacks his fist into his palm rhythmically, illustrating the repetitive blows to the head experienced by professional football players—nearly 70 percent of whom are black, a disproportionately high figure considering African-American males make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population.

“As you are growing up, you learn etiquette, behaviors of society, to regulate your violent tendencies. Playing football destroys that capacity of the brain,” he continues. “So you ask yourself: The high criminality we have among young black men, how much has football contributed to it?”

You can hear the room groan and shudder. “It’s a civil rights question you need to ask yourselves,” Omalu says.