'Concussion' Doctor Changes the Conversation About High-Contact Sports

Will Smith portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu in “Concussion.”

ByAbc News
December 14, 2015, 12:30 PM

— -- Will Smith’s passionate performance in the new film “Concussion” earned him a Golden Globe nomination.

The man Smith portrays in the film is Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who is credited with being the first person to tie head injuries to the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head.

The actor thanked Omalu after learning of his nomination, writing, “I'm grateful to the HFPA for recognizing Dr. Omalu's inspiring and heroic story and I couldn't feel more honored to be included with this group of phenomenal actors. Congratulations, Dr. Omalu. See you at the Globes.”

Omalu was humbled by his message, replying on “Good Morning America” today, “Will Smith is such a wonderful individual. He’s pristine,” said Omalu. “I wish him the best of luck and may peace be with him.”

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Researchers are still working to understand the exact way that CTE develops, but it is a process that seems to involve many factors, including microscopic damage to brain cells that occurs from repeated head trauma. This damage is thought to lead to the buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain – the most notable of which is called tau – that is also found in Alzheimer's patients and is associated with a breakdown of brain tissue. Symptoms include memory loss, confusion, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety and progressive dementia.

The disease can only be diagnosed after death when tissue samples can be examined for the tau protein.

CTE has been found mostly in athletes who play contact sports, such as football. Omalu’s discovery pitted him against the powerful NFL.

Multiple NFL players – including Frank Gifford and Junior Seau -- have been diagnosed with CTE after their deaths and the league continues to face criticism that it has not done enough to protect players.

“We welcome any conversation about player health and safety,” the NFL wrote to ABC News. “Broader and deeper awareness of these issues will positively impact all athletes. The NFL has made numerous changes to the game to enhance the health and safety of players at all levels of football. These include nearly 40 rule changes in the last decade like strict concussion protocols, better training and sideline medical care. We are seeing measurable results, including a 34 percent decrease in concussions in NFL games since the 2012 season. Additionally, we are funding independent scientific and medical research and the development of better protective equipment to advance further progress. The game continues to change, and the safety of our players remain our highest priority.”

However Omalu says “it’s not about concussions.”

“CTE, and also there’s post traumatic epilepsy, it’s not about concussions. Concussions do not cause CTE,” he explained. “Concussion by itself is a disease. CTE is a disease. Both are caused by blows to the head. So no matter how much you reduce concussions, you are still exposing yourself to repeated blows. Your risk of developing CTE is still there. But, the movie really is not about the nitty gritty of the science. It’s about that spirit of the American family that I so much believed in as a child. It’s a story about what it is to be an American, to seek the truth, to become enlightened, seeking the truth because the truth will set you free. This is what defines us as Americans. The truth.”

Omalu is also specifically concerned about letting children play high impact contact sports.

In a recently published New York Times Op-Ed titled “Don’t Let Kids Play Football,” he wrote, in part, “as a society, the question we have to answer is, when we knowingly and willfully allow a child to play high-impact contact sports, are we endangering that child?”

The doctor says he is not anti-football or anti-sports, he just wants to provide the knowledge for people to be protected.

“Knowing what we know now, do we continue to expose our children to the risk of permanent brain damage?,” he asked on “GMA.” “This is not anti-football. This is not anti-sports, but knowing what we know now, exposure of your head to repeated blows, whatever human activity, has an inherent risk of causing damage. So like we have done with smoking, with alcohol, even with sex, shouldn’t we protect our children, the most vulnerable, the most precious gifts of our life, and let them become adults? Now, if you become an adult, and as a physician I educate you, and you make up your mind to play, I’ll be the very first to stand by your side to defend you, your right as an American to do whatever you want to do. But not our children.”

His research may be helping to change the ongoing conversation about concussions.

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