Quoted and noted: Bennet Omalu visits Mizzou

Omalu: “The NFL is an organization that has become toxic in its own success. The players don’t matter to them. [But] the life of one NFL player has greater value than the $19 billion NFL.”

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy and inspired the movie “Concussion,” spoke at MU on Wednesday about the NFL’s problem with CTE and his history of studying the condition in football players.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, on why he carries out his work: “I had a decision to make. My faith and my science came together and I decided I would rather do what is right and [what] serves the truth.”

On his first exposure to Mike Webster, the former Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs Pro Football Hall of Fame center who was the first former NFL player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE: “One night, I turned on CNN to see who was killing someone else in the world, and they were talking about this great American football player who had played 17 years and had died. But they were degrading him, saying that he had been great at the game of football but a failure in the game of life. That morning, I thought to myself ‘poor guy,’ but I had to go to work. When I got to work, Mike Webster was lying on my table.”

On the scene at Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, where he worked, on the day he arrived to do the autopsy on Mike Webster: There was some commotion when I arrived to work; many more people than usual for a Sunday morning, and I asked my technician who Mike Webster was. He said, ‘how can you not know who Mike Webster is in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania?’ And he told me he was that football player that CNN and everyone else had been talking about. My entire experiences of life came together at that very moment.”

On when he was given Mike Webster’s body to examine: “I introduced myself [to him] like I always do [to my patients] and I said to him, ‘Mike, I don’t think there’s something wrong with you. I think you’re a victim of football.’ At that moment, I saw myself in Mike Webster.”

On why he carried out the autopsy and further testing on Mike Webster’s brain: “I had questions that I didn’t have answers to and there was a fellow man who had died and had been laughed at.”

On the NFL’s prior knowledge of a connection between football and brain damage: “We have always known that playing football causes brain damage. The NFL has always known it. In 1957, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a paper that said any child in America under 12 should not play football, boxing or wrestling. [These sports] damage the growth plates [in children’s brains]. There was another paper from the AAP in 2011 that [said] children should not be allowed to engage in high contact sports.”

On his prior knowledge of football before he examined Mike Webster’s body: “I was a football buffoon. I had seen on Nigerian Satellite TV great big men dressed up like extraterrestrials with tiny legs and helmets and running into each other, playing a sport called football.”

On what he believes is the current state of the NFL: “The NFL is an organization that has become toxic in its own success. The players don’t matter to them. [But] the life of one NFL player has greater value than the 19-billion-dollar NFL.”

On why he believes American-born doctors did not discover CTE earlier: “In this country, I, Bennet Omalu, am not the smartest doctor in America. How come it took an outsider to discover this disease in America’s most popular sport? Mike Webster, these other players, they saw the best doctors this country has to offer. But those doctors all chose to look the other way. For many years I was trying to discover why [this was the case]. It is what I call conformational intelligence. It is a phenomenon in which your intelligence and your thinking is controlled by the traditions, norms and expectations of society without you being aware of it.”

On the NFL’s refusal to acknowledge the link between football and brain trauma: “Conformational intelligence is why a very intelligent neuroscientist, [Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and player safety], went on national TV to say that football doesn’t cause any brain injury to human beings. He did it six times.” [Note: on March 14, 2016, Miller admitted a link between football and CTE to a congressional committee discussing concussions.]

On America’s relationship with football: “We are in love with football like a man who is in love with a woman.”

On what parents should do with their kids involving football: “With the current research we have, there is no reason for any child under the age of 18 to play high-impact sports. I believe that when you expose a child to the possibility of long-term harm, whether intentional or not, that’s child abuse.”

On who is to blame for America’s apathy towards head trauma in football: “I don’t blame the NFL. The NFL is a corporation that has the right to make money. Rather, it is the consumer. If we all stopped watching football…”

Junior Gracie Winkelmann, on what she learned from Omalu’s talk: “I learned a lot about football injuries. It was cool to learn about how dangerous football is and how it’s important to protect your children from that. That was cool to learn about.”

Junior Bailey Godat, on what she took away from the spirit Omalu demonstrated: “He had so much faith in himself. His drive to keep going was inspiring. He embodied our core values: respect, responsibility, excellence, and discovery. He was a great example for us.”

Edited by Peter Baugh | pbaugh@themaneater.com

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