Just five days after Christmas, I went to the theater to watch the movie Concussion. I actually read the book over the Thanksgiving holiday, so I knew the story and was eager to see Will Smith in his starring role as Dr. Bennet Omalu. While reading the book was a personal experience, seeing the movie produced by Sony Pictures would allow me to see the story that all of America would see.
True stories are always the most fascinating, and this was no exception. Concussion is about the power of science and the ability of one person to make a big impact. It is about overcoming social barriers and pursuing the American dream. All the stuff that makes a great story.
This is the story of a doctor’s discovery and the journey to share his message. Dr. Bennet Omalu immigrated to the United States from Nigeria. He wanted to leave his home country in the past and longed to become 100% American. He found most things to be better here than in Nigeria, but he discovered something he had never anticipated: racism. While it played a factor, his race wasn’t the major obstacle that he confronted. The combination of his African heritage, his devotion to God, his intelligence, and his charming quirkiness made it difficult for him to fit in. His colleagues in the medical profession didn’t take him seriously, and the NFL certainly didn’t want anything to do with him.
Dr. Omalu performed autopsies on NFL athletes and performed accurate scientific analysis to detect the condition that he would name “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” known as CTE. Before his discovery, doctors struggled to diagnose the players, and they categorized the condition as a form of Alzheimer’s. This medical label didn’t make sense to Omalu because the players were often in their 40’s and 50’s, much too young for Alzheimer’s disease.
While Omalu knew nothing about the game of football, he did come to know some of the players. Unfortunately, he met them in the morgue, after their bodies has succumbed to the effects of brain disease. One of the first things he learned about football was that too many NFL players (and their families) suffered debilitating, often fatal, physical descent as a result of playing the game.
The NFL had formed their own team of doctors. Their publicized goal was to study concussions, but it was headed by a rheumatologist, not a neurologist. Their job was apparently to protect the NFL itself, not its players, and they were used as a defense to block Omalu’s research.
The story takes place in Pittsburgh, one of the greatest football cities in history, and its fans are rooted in tradition, not cutting-edge science. The fact that many retired Steelers players ended up with terrible brain disease was a wake-up call to NFL families and fans that something serious was going on with their once-invincible heroes.
You can read actual critic reviews about the movie or the book on many websites, and I am not trying to replicate those. My insight originates from my role as a science teacher and STEM advocate. This story represents the core of what we are trying to teach our students. Real science is based on accurate data collection methods, repetition of experiment, and unbiased analysis of results. Real science proves itself through the quality of the research. It’s easy to “tell” the students how science works, but telling them is not nearly as effective as showing them a real-life story produced in Hollywood.
As we know, scientists conduct research and then publish their work in scientific journals. In reality, however, scientists do more than that. They must market themselves, present their positions, and often play a game of politics. If their work is to become meaningful, then the scientific community must support them.
In Dr. Omalu’s case, his findings were being discredited by the NFL. Not because he was wrong, but because his findings could potentially change America’s game. First, the NFL could face losing enormous amounts of money in lawsuits. Secondly, but perhaps more fundamentally, his science could rip out our American hearts by crushing our idealized vision of our beloved sport.
I love to show my students the movie Einstein’s Big Idea, a film that highlights the careers of several world-changing scientists. Students learn that Lise Meitner was not duly credited with the discovery of fission, the concept that fueled the atomic bomb and nuclear power. Because she was a quiet Jewish woman, she did not receive the recognition she deserved, and the Nobel Prize went to her partner instead.
Dr. Bennet Omalu’s story reminded me of the story of Michael Faraday, as it is told in Einstein’s Big Idea. I will give a brief review of his life to illustrate the parallels between 19th Century Faraday and the modern day Omalu.
Faraday’s work in electromagnetism led to the invention of the electric motor, which, of course, changed the world dramatically. Because Faraday was not formally educated and not born into upper class society, many people did not “believe” his science. Faraday proposed the idea that electromagnetic force fields project into the empty space around a conductor. Because the elite scientists of University of Cambridge had never proposed such theories about how electricity and magnetism interacted, his colleagues figured he couldn’t be right. Because it was Faraday, the lowly son of a blacksmith, who first described electromagnetic behavior, it was not until after his death that his findings were accepted.
Another driving force behind Faraday’s work was his faith in God. He actually turned down several titles of distinction, including knighthood and presidency of the Royal Society, because he did not want to accept personal fame. He viewed his contributions to science as a way to serve God and as a way to become closer to the One who created our world.
Albert Einstein respected Michael Faraday as being for his role as a scientific pioneer. Faraday paved the way for others to discover groundbreaking principles in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. His concept of electromagnetism is now one of the first scientific concepts we teach our children, but at the time of its discovery, it was discredited as foolishness and as nonsense.
Dr. Bennet Omalu has a strong faith in God and is very open about his beliefs. He looks at his scientific work as part of a bigger picture, much like Faraday did. Omalu noted that God created woodpeckers and rams to sustain numerous blows to the head, but He did not create the brains of men to withstand those same types of injuries. Pointing out these facts to fellow scientists did not win their favor but, instead, made them question Omalu’s scientific reasoning.
Although Dr. Bennet Omalu is an extremely educated man, he faced the barriers of being Nigerian, being religious, and being quirky (albeit in a charming way). At times, he was disclaimed because he didn’t know anything about football. Imagine that…having your scientific discovery discredited because you don’t know anything about football!
Although he is a leading neuropathologist who had studied the brains of deceased football players, the NFL quite intentionally shut him out of their conference on concussions. Apparently, they wanted to be able to publicize their interest in concussions, but they had no interest in the true science that was happening in the heads of their players. As Americans, we love our NFL players, but the NFL itself didn’t seem to care much about their health or their family lives. Their interest was only in the financial value that the players brought to the business.
Doing science accurately and honestly may not be easy, and, in the case of Dr. Bennet Omalu, it can be heartbreaking at times. But, scientists have the power to create change in our world. Scientific discovery can help improve lives and make our world safer, brighter, and more prosperous.
In this case, it is obvious that the rewards of the discovery can help save and protect the lives of football players of all ages. Even with the advent of CTE, the game of football is as popular as ever. The future of this story is in preventing or curing the disease, and the research on CTE is still newly developing, thanks to Dr. Omalu.
In order to teach the stories behind science, I have recommended many books to my students, some of which include The Girls of the Atomic City, The Radioactive Boy Scout, The Disappearing Spoon, Uncle Tungsten, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb. All these stories are fantastic, but they are history. While many adults enjoy history, young people are usually less than thrilled to read something historical. Anything that may soon be on Netflix, on the other hand, is something that just might spark their interest.
Concussion is a story that begins just before 2005 and is still unfolding. It is not history. It is real life, and it is happening now. And, better than that, it’s about NFL football. I cannot imagine a more captivating person or topic for a movie. It is a story about football, but the hero is a scientist. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Whether or not the film receives any Academy Awards is beside the point here. As the movie shows, groundbreaking science is often not recognized or honored right away. Hollywood does not generally reward true science, but it serves to portray it on screen for those of us who are willing to pay for it. Fortunately, or not, scientific breakthrough is often the basis for a riveting story, and for those of us who love to see the advancement of STEM, we relish such an adventure.
On behalf of STEM educators, thank you to everyone who wrote this story and to those who brought it to the big screen. And of course, thanks to Dr. Bennet Omalu for your exquisite research and for following the path laid out for you.