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Dr. Bennet Omalu and the autopsy that shook the NFL




Dr. Bennet Omalu, left, Co-Director, Brain Injury Research Institute, West Virginia University talks with Dr. Ira R. Casson, Neurologist and former co-chairman, NFL Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, before a House Judiciary Committee hearing entitled
Dr. Bennet Omalu, left, Co-Director, Brain Injury Research Institute, West Virginia University talks with Dr. Ira R. Casson, Neurologist and former co-chairman, NFL Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, before a House Judiciary Committee hearing entitled "Legal Issues Relating to Football Head Injuries, Part II" in Detroit, Monday, Jan. 4, 2010. The House Judiciary Committee heard from retired players at the hearing today on head injuries in football, following up an Oct. 28 hearing in Washington where lawmakers questioned NFL football commissioner Roger Goodell about the league's approach to concussions. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Paul Sancya/AP

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Dr. Bennet Omalu is the forensic pathologist credited with the discovery of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. His story is told in the new movie "Concussion," where he's played by the actor Will Smith.

Omalu first came into contact with CTE when he was working at the Pittsburgh coroner's office, when he was tasked with performing the autopsy on famous Steeler's center Mike Webster.

He eventually came to believe that the depression and dementia Webster had suffered prior to his death was linked to the hits he took playing football.

Omalu recently penned an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times, in which he made the case that young people should not play football until their brains are fully formed, between 18 and 25 years old. It's a recommendation that, if widely followed, could permanently cripple the NFL.

Omalu contends that he has nothing against the sport, but to ignore the correlation between contact sports and brain trauma could put thousands of children at risk of mental disorders later in life. 

“If you are an adult and — as a physician and a pathologist — I educate you on the dangers and risks of some activity, like smoking or playing football, and you make up your mind to play, I would be one of the first to stand by you to defend your right,” he says. “Even if you take a gun [and] place it on your head to shoot yourself, you have the right to do that. This is America. But as a modern society, I believe we are morally bound to protect the most vulnerable — our children —like we have done with smoking.”

Omalu says there’s no such thing as a safe blow to the head. He's optimistic that helmet designers will find new ways to protect the brain, but he says the helmets currently available do little to prevent trauma. Given this, Omalu argues that the choice should be clear for parents. 

“Knowing what we know now, do we continue to expose our children intentionally to the risk of brain damage?”

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