Truth Doesn’t Have a Side
Dr. Bennet Omalu’s story shows the high cost of calling a national pastime into question
On Saturday, September 28, 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu began the autopsy of a 50-old white male. Case A02-5214 was straightforward. The man had died of a heart attack. His name was Mike Webster.
Perhaps I should say the Mike Webster: Pittsburgh Steeler, center to Terry Bradshaw, four-time Super Bowl champ. Though “Iron Mike” was adored as a football icon in Pittsburgh, he had fallen from grace after his career ended. Memory loss, depression and erratic behavior, coupled with addiction, left him — in Omalu’s words — “a bankrupt, divorced, homeless man living in his truck” at the time of his death.
A heart attack killed Mike Webster, but Omalu suspected that the radical changes in behavior were the result of brain damage. Outwardly, Webster’s brain looked normal. But when Omalu fixed it in formalin and examined the tissue under a microscope, he discovered massive damage at the cellular level. In a 2005 paper about Webster’s brain, Omalu gave the damage a name: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — “a bad brain associated with trauma over a long period of time.”
Just how much trauma had Mike Webster’s brain experienced? Over the course of his football career — high school, college, NFL — it has been estimated that he experienced the equivalent of 25,000 car accidents. Those collisions, often helmet to helmet, left an indelible mark on his brain.
One would think that the discovery of CTE would have been welcomed by the National Football League (NFL). After all, if you know a problem exists, you can begin to prescribe a solution. And indeed, the NFL had begun investigating the problem of concussions among its players around the time.
Should we be entertained by high contact sports that do such damage to those who play them professionally?
Two years prior to the publication of Omalu’s first CTE paper, for example, the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee published a series of paper stating that concussions were rare in professional football and that better helmets could protect against them. Omalu’s first CTE paper implied that the brain trauma associated with high-contact sports was severe. (As Omalu autopsied the brains of other deceased NFL players, however, his repeated findings of CTE suggested that the severe brain damage was routine.) The NFL sent a letter to the journal that published Omalu’s 2005 paper, demanding that it be retracted. Privately, they trashed his reputation.
As late as 2016, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys stated, “We don’t have that knowledge and background and scientifically [sic], so there’s no way in the world to say you have a relationship relative to anything here. There’s no research. There’s no data.” Denial, it seems, is not just a river in Egypt.
For those not in denial, Omalu’s research, combined with the research of others, has established the reality of CTE. The damage is so bad that Omalu states, “I believe God did not make human beings to play football, especially children.” This is a radical stance, especially in America, a country that loves its “Friday night lights.” Omalu believes it is the only reasonable stance in light of the evidence he has uncovered, however.
So, why tell Omalu’s story in an article for a Christian leadership magazine? Because Omalu is a devout Christian, and his crusade against brain injury is an example of using one’s influence for the common good. Pastors and other congregational leaders need to remember that their discipleship efforts should prepare congregants for life in the secular world. Basically, Christian faith should make doctors better doctors. (And teachers better teachers, plumbers better plumbers, etc.)
Second, Omalu’s story is an example of prophetic influence. We often associate biblical prophecy with future events. It is that, of course. It is also an exposure of injustice and a call for repentance, however. Those injustices violate the shalom in which God created people to live. Omalu’s medical research forces us to ask a question: Should we be entertained by high contact sports that do such damage to those who play them professionally?
In the late fourth century, St. Telemachus wandered into a stadium and witnessed the violence of a gladiatorial contest. Running onto the stadium floor, he yelled, “In the name of Christ, stop!” Bennet Omalu is a modern-day Telemachus.
And that brings me to a third point: prophetic influence is costly. St. Telemachus, for example, was killed by enraged fans of the gladiatorial contest. Omalu’s detractors have questioned his credentials, cast aspersions on his findings, and trashed his reputation. Everyone wants to call out society’s injustices. Few are willing to pay the price.
Fourth, Omalu’s story shows the power of what he calls “conformational intelligence.” He defines the phrase this way: “a phenomenon whereby the way you think and perceive the world, including your sense of right and wrong and good and evil, are controlled, constrained, and constricted by the expectations, cultures, traditions, norms, and mores of the society around you without you even knowing it or being aware of it.” The biblical term for conformational intelligence is stronghold.
The reason why prophetic influence in society is costly is precisely because one is calling its strongholds into question. Professional football is a fan favorite and a big money maker. Calling that sport into question because of the damage it does to players’ brains exposes our national pastime as a national stronghold. No wonder the NFL went after Omalu.
And no wonder Omalu — an immigrant — was able to see through its conformational intelligence. As an outsider to American culture, he didn’t share our blind spots about football. If we’re going to exercise prophetic influence in our society, we need to develop an outsider perspective. Christians need to be in the world but not of the world, as Jesus said (John 17:16,18).
Truth Doesn’t Have a Side tells Dr. Bennet Omalu’s fascinating story. It’s not essential reading for Christian leaders; but for those with eyes to see, it’s an enlightening tale of influence used Christianly in the real world.
Dr. Bennet Omalu with Mark Tabb, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side: My Alarming Discovery about the Danger of Contact Sports (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).