by Brett Cyrgalis
For Dr. Bennet Omalu, the future of football is not a debate.
To science’s most outspoken critic of the harmful effects of concussions, and whose life journey inspired the 2015 movie “Concussion” starring Will Smith, the demise of football is inevitable.
“Someday there will be a district attorney who will prosecute for child abuse [on the football field], and it will succeed,” Omalu said Monday night during a talk held by the New York Press Club in Midtown. “It is the definition of child abuse.”
There is no hedging in the way Omalu, a forensic pathologist, describes the science that led to his discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease that has affected so many former NFL players. It again has been in the spotlight after a recent study showed 110 of 111 former NFL players who had their brains donated for examination suffered from CTE.
“That study out of Boston simply reaffirmed something we have always known, that there is nothing like a safe blow to the head,” Omalu said. “If you play football, and if your child plays football, there is a 100 percent risk exposure. There is nothing like making football safer. That’s a misnomer.”
When Omalu first brought his findings to the NFL, the league scoffed. Eventually, the courts forced the NFL to pay a $1 billion settlement to former players who were suffering from the debilitating effects of playing the game. Omalu hardly blames the NFL, but rather the societal mores that dictate its popularity and the acolytes in the medical community who have inexcusably exchanged their integrity for their own economic benefit through their association with the league.
“There is nothing the league can do. The league is a corporation,” Omalu said. “What do corporations do? Make money. They’re not there to provide health care or perform research. That is not what they’re there to do. They’re selling product.
“If they feel the need to make any changes, they’re making calculated changes that will enhance their bottom line.”
Omalu’s book “Truth Doesn’t Have a Side” was released in early August and it follows his journey from his native Nigeria to his breakthrough findings while performing an autopsy on Steelers’ great Mike Webster. Omalu is striving to get through to parents who are thinking about letting their children play football. His belief is that no child under the age of 18 should be allowed to play sports with such proclivity for brain damage — and he believes the courts are eventually going to back him up.
“Adults are free to do whatever they want to do, as long as they have educated consent. But children, no,” Omalu said. “And we’ve always done that whenever we identify a possible risk factor. What we do as a society is protect children from being exposed to such risk factors. We do that with cigarette smoking. We did that with alcohol. Why not football, which is more dangerous?
“We wouldn’t let children smoke a stick of cigarette, but then send them to a football field to sustain concussions? So I think it’s time for society to tell the truth.”
Omalu did admit he didn’t think things were going to change overnight, and acknowledged there has not been a significant drop-off in participation in youth football. But just as it took the courts to force the NFL to compensate its former players, Omalu believes eventually the law cannot avoid what he sees as a clear-cut public risk factor for children playing football.
“The truth will always prevail,” he said, “but it may take a long time to come.”