The Current Transcript for August 11, 2017
Host: Megan Williams
STORIES FROM THIS EPISODE
Listen to the full episode
PRINCE HARRY: It was that loved. But even if she was on the other side of a room, as a son, you could- you could feel it.
PRINCE WILLIAM: We felt, you know incredibly loved, Harry and I, and I'm very grateful that love still- still- still feels there.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Princes Harry and William reflecting on Diana; mother, Princess, icon and every woman, beloved by so many and who died so suddenly 20 years ago, this summer. And if that feels like yesterday to you, and it does to me, you're not alone. When she was still living Diana's unofficial biographer Andrew Morton gave the world a much fuller picture of her real life. A quarter of a century ago, now. He's my first guest today and with him we'll look at Diana's legacy, two decades on. And then, Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian immigrant who dared to tackle America's favorite game.
A human being will get concussed at 60 Gs. A common head to head contact on the football field: One hundred Gs. God did not intend for us to play football.
MW: That was the Nigerian-American doctor being played by Will Smith in the Hollywood film Concussion. A new study looking at the brains of deceased NFL players affirms the doctor's findings of the long term effects of the dangerous game. He joins me in about half an hour from now to talk about his own difficult journey of speaking truth to power. I'm Megan Williams and this is the summer edition of The Current.Back To Top »
How Princess Diana's legacy lives on 20 years after her death: Andrew Morton
Guest: Andrew Morton
PRINCESS DIANA: A leech on the heart, not the head, an opiate that's got into trouble in my work, I understand that. But someone was got to go out there and love people and show it.
ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY: Here, is the stuff of which fairy tales are made.
VERY REVEREND ALAN WEBSTER: I Diana Frances
PRINCESS DIANA: I, Diana Frances
VERY REVEREND ALAN WEBSTER: take thee Charles Philip Arthur George
PRINCESS DIANA: Till death us do part.
PRINCESS DIANA: I hope you can find it in your hearts to understand and to give me the time and space that has been lacking in recent years.
ANONYMOUS: It is announced from Buckingham Palace that, with regret, the Prince and Princess of Wales have decided to separate.
PATRICK JEPHSON: Do you think you will ever be queen?
PRINCESS DIANA: No. I don't. No.
PATRICK JEPHSON: Why do you think that?
PRINCESS DIANA: I'd like to be a queen of people's hearts in people's hearts. But I don't see myself being queen of this country.
ANONYMOUS: Confirmation that Diana Princess of Wales has in fact been killed in that car accident, in Paris.
MW: Moments from the life of Diana Princess of Wales who died tragically in a car crash in Paris, 20 years ago this month, on August 31st. Diana was many things in life; a mother, a wronged wife, a feminist symbol, a fashionista, humanitarian and a rebel. And she's proven to be no less magnetic in death. With the 10th 20th anniversary approaching, we've already seen a slew of TV specials and retrospectives about Diana, including a new edition of one of the most definitive books about her. In 1992, Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story blew the lid off the royal household. But what no one knew at the time was that Diana was actually Morton's source for his “unofficial” biography. Andrew Morton joins me live from, our London studio. Hello.
ANDREW MORTON: Hi. How are you doing?
MW: Fine, thank you.
ANDREW MORTON: It brings you all back, doesn’t it? All those quotes that you were just playing.
MW: It sure does. Twenty years on, there are still television specials. There have been dozens of articles still trying to figure out who Diana was. What do you make of all the attention to the anniversary of her death?
ANDREW MORTON: Well, I have to say I'm quite surprised by the amount of interest and it's something that has continued all the way through the year. Just to my knowledge, there are at least 25 documentaries are being made, some using her voice some using quotes from- obviously you've seen the interviews with her boys William and Harry. It's been quite an astonishing year I think.
MW: For so many people, she's still clearly important. Does that surprise you?
ANDREW MORTON: Yes. I think she did genuinely change the monarchy. And people respect the monarchy. People follow the story. And the fact that her life was taken so suddenly and so tragically and the fact that we've watched the effects on her boys, William and Harry, that has kept her flame alive. And certainly with Prince William and the engagement ring, Diana's engagement ring, which he gave to Katherine. Again she's kind of overshadowed or shadowed the lives of both boys, and in that sense as well, she's always been present.
MW: Mhmm. I mean her premature death aside, what do you think it is about Diana that continues to resonate so much with Britain?
ANDREW MORTON: Well she had this curious quality, that you can call charisma. But also I think that people followed her journey. They followed this journey of this shy blushing teenager who became an international icon, a humanitarian, but also someone who had difficulties in her private life as we all know, with her husband, Prince Charles, tries to find love. And the many people kind of associated their own lives with her life. They could see that their own difficulties were reflected in Diana's. Obviously, wasn't quite a perfect comparison by any means, but nonetheless she was flawed, she was vulnerable and yet she had the courage to take on the difficult challenges that she faced in her life.
MW: Mhmm. And she also had a rather extraordinary transformation, personal transformation. And I wonder if that contributes to the debate that's still alive today about her legacy. How do you see her legacy?
ANDREW MORTON: Yes, very much so. I do see the transformation from this two dimensional clotheshorse to her three dimensional character, who wants to be known for what she said rather than what she looked like. And yet at the same time could use the iconography of her clothes to express a point of view. Her legacy, going forward, is very much a living legacy with her children. And I'm particularly taken by the character of Prince William. He has both of humanity and compassion of his mother, but also you can see the kind of caution and steadfastness of the Queen in his character. So I think that, in Prince William, you will see the flame of Diana continue well into this century.
MW: Now the BBC's Andrew Marr says that her death revived the culture of public sentiment. Do you agree?
ANDREW MORTON: Well it depends what you mean. It always irritates me that people talk about the hysteria surrounding Diana's death and I was there for that week, outside the gates of Kensington Palace. And people were sad, they were in morning. There was no hysteria. There was no weeping, wailing. People were quietly reflecting on her life and her legacy. And I think that there's always been the opposite point of view, that what you might call the Prince Charles’, side who would always like to diminish Diana; diminish her legacy, to diminish her life and diminish the character that she became.
MW: And Prince Charles isn't the only one who sees her legacy as not being particularly important. The American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Anne Applebaum, she said that Diana had no effect on anything and that her legacy is quote “pea sized”. What do you make of that?
ANDREW MORTON: Yes. I had to laugh on her at that, because she raised- her death raised well over 200 million Canadian dollars for something like 400 charities, over a number of years. And her death impacted definitively on people's lives. And then secondly, you have the way that both William and Harry have said that they will continue with her legacy, continue with her work and change the monarchy, in her image. So in many respects, she's done far more to transform the monarchy, than perhaps even the Queen, in the 15 years or so that she was a member of that institution.
MW: Beyond the royal family though, did she shift culture in any way to your mind?
ANDREW MORTON: I think that what you might call Britain's stiff upper lip brigade ended with the funeral. And we have more of a trembling lower lip. And again, I keep referring to the living legacy, William and Harry, when they supported the mental health charities that they're doing. They said it was good to emote good to be in touch with your feelings. Harry himself has talked about how he hid a lot of these feelings, during his early years. And I think that we've become a more expressive nation, a more touchy, feely nation than we were perhaps 30 or 40 years ago.
MW: And you link that to Diana?
ANDREW MORTON: And I think that Diana is a symbol of that. I mean obviously, she was one woman in a big world but she did have an impact. She had an impact possibly more than any of your listeners today would have on the world.
MW: I want to talk about your 1992 book, Diana Her Story, which is one of the definitive books about her. Remind us about what was going on in her life back then?
ANDREW MORTON: Well, at that stage in her life she realized that her marriage was definitely over. Prince Charles was effectively living with another man's wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles, at his home in the West Country. She was the mistress in all but name of Prince Charles's life, organizing dinner parties and so on. Diana realized that she was going to have to put up with living a lie, for the for the rest of her life and she did want to do so. She felt unlike say a previous princesses who would sacrifice themselves on the altar of monarchy. She wasn't prepared to make that sacrifice. And I have to say, neither was Fergie, because we always forget her in this equation. She too didn't want to sacrifice herself to an unhappy marriage and a kind of public deception.
MW: Right. So your book, of course, told the other story the real story of what was going on in her life personally. What kind of reaction did you get when the book first came out, telling this other storyÉ
ANDREW MORTON: Well, when the book came out I was facing a tsunami of criticism that threatened to sweep me away. I mean the Archbishop of Canterbury attacked it, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, a loose box of editors, BBC, ITV. Everybody was against it. And it was a question of trying to make people understand that this is a very sympathetic portrait of the princess that these things had happened, that she had made these half-hearted suicide attempts. She had suffered from this eating disorder. And there was this woman, called Camilla Parker-Bowles, who cast a long shadow over her life.
MW: Of course which we all know the conclusion to that story.
MW: Now the revised version of your book, has ``In Her Own Words`` added to the cover, what exactly was Diana's participation in the making of the book?
ANDREW MORTON: Well, initially she gave an interview to me, via an intermediary a chap called James Colthurst. What happened is that he would go to Kensington Palace, turn on his battered old tape recorder and Diana would answer the questions I'd written down for her and then. And then I would go away and try to make sense of what she'd had to say. And it was like living in a parallel universe that everybody believed in the fairy-tale, that the marriage was fine, that Prince Charles and Princess Diana were very happy parents and very happy royals. And I was getting the other side of the story. And it was really like the movie All the President's Men. You felt a sense of paranoia that at the moment you could be snatched by dark forces in the establishment.
MW: Speaking of recordings there's been a lot of controversy in Britain over the Channel 4 documentary: Diana in Her Own Words, which is based on candid video recordings the Princess made with a voice coach, between 1992 and 93. That was after her separation from Prince Charles. Let's listen to one clip.
PRINCESS DIANA: If you come in here you sit down and be quiet.
ANONYMOUS: I will be very quiet.
PRINCESS DIANA: Don't touch it [unintelligible] because it's all focused on me.
[Background music starts]
PRINCESS DIANA: I was brought up in the sense that, you know, when you got engaged to someone, you love them. We are at a party [unintelligible]. So, he is kissing me and everything, and I say “Yeah”, he will be like “this is what people do”. And he is all over me.
We met 13 times before we got married. [Laughs]
So, I went to the top lady, and sobbing and I said “What do I do? I am coming to you. What do I do?” She said "And she said, ‘I don’t know what you should do, Charles is hopeless’. And that was it. That was help.
MW: Tell Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, and her friend Rosa Monckton wanted those tapes to remain confidential. Do you agree that they should have remained confidential?
ANDREW MORTON: Well, funny, I watched the documentary last night, for the first time, and I found it quite boring, to be honest with you, because there's an awful lot of portentous background music, but not an awful lot of fun of Donna speaking candidly. Yes. First of all, the tapes of [unintelligible] were released in 2004. So, they are being watched by over a million people on YouTube. So, there was nothing particularly new in them but they were just broadcast for the first time in Britain as you mentioned. As far as I'm concerned, it's part of the historical record, now. It is 20 years since her death. There's nothing particularly new in what she had to say. You know that she told me that she went to see the queen. She told me that she first met Prince Charles at a barbecue, in the Home Counties, and he kind of looked on her. And she also said that she spent very little time with him before he asked her to marry him. So I don't want to sound like “I told you so”.
ANDREW MORTON: But it's just her coming out with the same material but to a different interlocutor.
MW: But still, you know, a lot of people in Britain were critical of Channel 4 for airing those tapes and there's clearly still a feeling of protectiveness towards Diana.
ANDREW MORTON: Yes, there is. I mean, Britain kind of stands alone in the world, that people around the world are very happy to listen to Diana's tapes, listen to her voice. And I do find it ironic that, you know, what did she want to do? She wanted, as her brother would say, to sing openly, to tell her stories, to say what was going on in her mind and in her heart. And she did so in Panorama. She also did so with me. And I just find it ridiculous that people are saying that, 20 years on, she can't express herself because this is what she felt like. And quite frankly, I found the only part of the documentary which was in any way interesting was the fact that you got a sense of her gaiety, her life, her humor, her effervescence in these brief clips. The rest of it was just full of pump pipes and portentous background music.
MW: Now there's another recent documentary called Diana our Mother: Her Life and Legacy. It features interviews with her sons William and Harry. Let's listen to a clip of that.
PRINCE WILLIAM: There's not many days go by that I do not think of her. Her 20th anniversary year feels like a good time to remember, you know, all the good things about her and hopefully, provide maybe a different side to the other have not [unintelligible].
PRINCE HARRY: Our mother was a total kid, through and through. When everybody said to me, you know, “So she was fun. Give us an example.” Or I can hear is her laugh, in my head. And that sort of crazy laugh of where there was just pure happiness shone on her face. One of her mottos to me was: “You can be as naughty as you want, just don't get caught.”
ANDREW MORTON: [Sobbing]
MW: That's from the documentary Diana our Mother her Life and Legacy, which aired last month on HBO. It will also be airing on the CBC's The Passionate Eye, on Sunday August 20th. Andrew Morton, how different was the private Diana her son's knew, from the Diana the public saw?
ANDREW MORTON: Well, in many respects she was one and the same, insofar as she always had a twinkle in her eye and always, she was always ready for a laugh, obviously, far more in private than in public. But you could also see, say on a Royal visit or in an official engagement, she was always looking for the funny side in something; the curious, the bizarre. She was always looking for a little story or anecdote to tell somebody afterwards, you know so-and-so did this and so so did that. So, you see a lot more of that, obviously, with William and Harry. And I did find that a very touching tribute to their mother. It wasn't a biography, because there's not one mention of their father Prince Charles. And I do find this a very interesting question, that here you have the future king, Prince William, and his brother talking for two hours about their mother and never mentioned, not even in passing, of their father. And it doesn't bode well for the future, I don’t think.
MW: How so?
ANDREW MORTON: In the sense that there's almost like two camps emerging inadvertently. You always think these days of William and Harry as their mother’s sons not their father’s sons. I may be wrong but that's the way that I feel about it. I'm sure that many people listening feel that way, too. And you get a real sense that there's a step change in attitude, from William and Harry, towards charities. They are more on the humanitarian side of things that are non-political. Prince Charles is a highly political Prince of Wales, you know, writing to Tony Blair for example, to urge him to rescind the ban on fox hunting. Right. So he's far more in the old fashioned mold of monarchy, that is to say having some influence in the Foreign Office, and so on.
MW: Okay. All right, thank you very much Andrew Morton. We're going to have to end it here. Thanks very much.
ANDREW MORTON: My pleasure.
MW: Andrew Morton is the author of Diana, Her True Story. The revised 25th anniversary edition is out now. He was in London. The CBC News is next. Then:
VOICE: Joseph can throw it. [Cheers] Does for the end and OH! A Nasty hit! They are calling for a attention, immediately.
MW: Football. It's the biggest game in America. But as the long term effects of big hits like that one become better understood. It's getting harder and harder for some fans to stomach the head to head combat. And that, thanks in large part to my next guest, the Nigerian American doctor who exposed the long term brain effects of concussions in football and hockey too. Dr. Bennett Omalu joins me, after the news.
[Music: Theme]Back To Top »
Children should not be allowed to play contact sports, declares concussion expert
Guest: Bennet Omalu
MW: Hello I'm Megan Williams and you're listening to the summer edition of The Current.
MW: Up next, getting your head out of the game.
VOICE: His entire career all six years, at this point- More going deep, has a man wide open, and [unintelligible]. That is Brice Butler, deep into Arizona territory.
MW: Well, excitement may be running high as ever for NFL football, in the United States with preseas and games underway already this month. But concerns about concussions and their long term effects on players are more serious than ever, this season. A new study of deceased football player brains has revealed that, of the 111 former NFL players examined, 110 showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. It's a degenerative brain disease marked by memory loss, depression, even suicide. CTE is raising serious questions about the future of sports like football and hockey. And that's largely because of the work of my next guest, Dr. Bennett Omalu who is a Nigerian-American forensic pathologist and neuropathologist. He discovered the condition and coined the term CTE back in 2002. You may have seen him portrayed by Will Smith in the Hollywood movie concussion. Dr. Bennett Omalu who has written a book about his journey called: Truth Doesn't Have a Side. He's with me now from New York. Hello.
DR. BENNET OMALU: Hi. Hi, Megan. Thank you so much for having me.
MW: You're welcome. Dr. Omalu, I'm curious. What was going through your mind when you heard the NFL fans cheering and the tape we just played?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Well, you know, there is a phenomenon, I call conformational intelligence. And it's a phenomenon whereby your mentality, the perception of your environment and interpretation of your environment, your way of thinking, your intelligence are pretty much controlled by expectations of society, traditions of society, norms of society. And what happens it's once you've conformed to a setting cost of mind, if any objective evidence is provided it to you to refute or to undermine that cast of the mind, you deny it. You reject it. So, when people come from to you to in any way challenge the cost of mind you become very emotional, very tribal. So that is what is happening. There's no question about it. America is so much in love with football. Just like Canada is so much in love with ice hockey. And it reminds me of myself when I was in college. I would fall in love with a girl, even no matter how bad people would tell that girl is. I will reject it and deny it [Laughs].
MW: So, you're saying football is, or the love of football is just pure emotion over reason.
DR. BENNET OMALU: Yes. Yes. And it's why people like myself, doctors and I Christian too, we need to begin to speak out. I think is our moral duty, especially as physicians.
MW: Now you're not the only one who has spoken out, and certainly not the only one researching this issue. This latest study came out late July. What was your reaction to it and the links that it established between CTE and football?
DR. BENNET OMALU: My reaction, honestly, was very flat because if you remember, over ten years ago, I said that any child who plays football, ice hockey, makes martial arts, rugby, wrestling, boxing has a 100 percent risk exposure to brain damage. We have always known, dating back centuries, that in whatever human activity, whereby the head is exposed to repeated blows, there is a very very high chance of brain damage, if not 100 percent risk of brain damage. And another thing I must warn, the brain damage following blows to the head is a very broad spectrum of diseases. CTE is just one of them. For example, if your child plays any of these high impact, high contact coalition sports and receives repeated blows to the head, with or without concussions, your child is more likely to die before the age of 42, through violent means. Your child has about two to four times increased risk of committing suicide. Your child has about two to four times increased risk of suffering from a major psychiatric illness, including major depression.
MW: Now knowing, with this recent research, knowing that it's not just the hard blow to the head that causes CTE, but repeated jostling of the head, that seems to be, I mean this latest study is being described as incontrovertible. So, where does that leave the fans? I mean what's the ethical responsibility of fans with this information?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Knowing what we know today, there is no justifiable reason whatsoever why a child under the age of 18 should continue to play these games. These games are potentially dangerous and should be left for only adults. For example, for football, that means we will still have college football on the NFL. Children should play the non-contact sports like swimming, track and field, volleyball. Whenever we identify a potential risk factor that could harm our children, we prevent our children from being exposed to such factors. For example, cigarette smoking, Cigarette smoking it's harmful. Children don't smoke. A glass of cognac can damage a child's brain. We don't allow children to drink alcohol.
MW: But so sorry, but what about adults? I mean NFL professional players, they're being just as affected are they not, by the jostling of their brains?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Yes, they are affected, but you know, this is people, adults are free. I would be the first to defend the rights, freedom and free will of any adult to do whatever he wants to do, as long as it does not pose a threat to another human being. Human adults have reached the age of consent to understand the consequences of what they do. For example, skydiving is a very dangerous sport but was not banded. Car racing is a very dangerous sport but it was not banded. So, adults, being adults, have the free will and liberty to do whatever they want to do. If they want to play football on sustained brain trauma, wonderful. Good for them, but not for children.
MW: We know the NFL isn't alone in facing this issue. CTE also affects athletes and other contact sports which you pointed out earlier, such as hockey, Canada's national sport. Both the NHL and CFL face class action lawsuits over concussions and brain trauma, but both leagues seem to remain skeptical of CTE. How would you say these major sports leagues are addressing the problem?
DR. BENNET OMALU: I don't expect the sports leagues to address the problem, because they're sports leagues are corporations that are there to make money. They are not there to provide health care to the players. That is not what they're in business for. Their business is entertainment. Okay. And that is why my focus has been the consumer. My focus has been the parent. Watch and every parent should know that the NFL is not there to protect your child for you. It is your duty, as a parent, to ask yourself question: “Do I love ice hockey more than I love my child? Do I love football more than I love my child?” Every parent loves his or her son and daughter. So, if you love your son and daughter, why would you done, intentionally expose him to the risk of permanent brain damage?
MW: Right and yet, NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, says his league has done a lot to minimize injuries to players. Take a listen to what he had to say to Sports Illustrated Now, in July 2016.
GARY BETTMAN: We've got a long term record on player safety, particularly as it relates to concussions. We were the first sports league to begin to study, with our players and the medical community, in 1997. We were the first sports league to have protocols for diagnosis and return to play decisions. We've made equipment changes. We created the Department of player safety. We've softened the environment with the boards and glass. There have been numerous rule changes.
MW: So, what do you think?
DR. BENNET OMALU: That is a marketing gimmick and that is why my book is two doesn't have a side. This is all a marketing gimmick and this is all nonsense. I have an MBA from one of the leading business schools in the world, the Tepper School of Business. Okay. It's a corporation. If you don't embrace and promote the truth, it's all a matter of time you'll be out of business. It may take a long time to come. The truth will always prevail. When you deny the truth, your consumer is not a fool. At some point, your brand equity will begin to bleed and at some point, it will have negative value. So, what I told this [unintelligible]? What I told him is come out and let the world know. Look, our sport is a collision sport. It is potentially dangerous, just like many other things we do in life. It's like telling me you're making fire safer. Can you tell me how you would make fire safe? Can somebody tell me how you can make head trauma safe? If this sport had been made safe, how come people are still suffering concussions in ice hockey?
MW: But, if I may, you know we do have legislation for workplace safety and for car safety. So, I mean there are laws to protect people in other areas. Why not in sports?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Exactly, because of this phenomenon of conformational intelligence, all of us are victims of it. If you look at my story I've always asked myself that question. Why did it take me, a foreigner, an African, who knew nothing about football, I mean I a buffoon of football, did not even know what a quarter back was. I didn't know what the NFL was. I did not know what a touchdown was. Why did it take somebody like me to do an autopsy on a very prominent football player who had been suffering for decades? He had seen all the best doctors in America, had been to the best hospitals in America.
MW: You're talking about former football star Mike Webster.
DR. BENNET OMALU: Yes please.
MW: I want to go back to the beginning of your own story, in your own quest for the truth. You first came across CTE when you performed an autopsy on, as we said, NFL star Mike Webster. Now he died of a heart attack but you examined his brain, correct?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Yes I did. I had no reason to do his autopsy. But I when I read his story, I felt I had empathy.
MW: Can you tell me what it was about Mike Webster that moved you so much? I mean can you describe to me when you saw his body, what did it look like? I mean why…
DR. BENNET OMALU: I met Mike before I saw his body. I met him on television. I woke up that morning, turned on the TV and heard news anchor talking about him in very derogatory terms, and almost making fun of him and other retired football players that did not do so well on the feud of life, after the feud or football. I was offended by that. That human beings will be talking about a deceased person in such a manner. Then lo and behold when I got to work on morning, his body was on the autopsy table, he was 50 years old but Mike looked like he was 80.
MW: Can you describe what he looked like?
DR. BENNET OMALU: He looked beaten up. I mean I've done thousands and thousands of autopsies. As a forensic pathologist, if I see a body I can write 1000 pages on the features of the body. When I saw him, he his body look very beaten up. Okay. Given his behavior, I expected that I would see changes in his brain when I opened up his skull. When I opened up his skull, Mike's brain looked normal. I was shocked.
MW: Why were you shocked? You're looking for what, signs of Alzheimer’s?
DR. BENNET OMALU: I was expecting to see a beaten up brain dead that was shrivelled. You know, mangled, but his brain was totally absolutely normal. But, I all I was almost tempted to examine it closely [unintelligible] and move on. But I did not. I chose to save his brain, to fix it in formalin, so I could spend time with it. In fact, I should not have done that, because we knew we had a cause of death. So, my boss Dr. Wecht then, said: “Well, Bennet, this is some intellectual curiosity to you. You can do whatever you want to do, but you'll have to pay for it with your own money”, which I did. I spent time with it. When I began to see changes in his brain, I went back to the literature. The only thing I saw in the literature was dementia pugilistica, which is the dementia of boxers.
DR. BENNET OMALU: It had not been described in any other group. I looked for dementia footballitika, there was none.
DR. BENNET OMALU: I showed the brain to other doctors to make sure I was not being delusional. They confirmed it was something that I had not been described before, outside boxing. So I had to give it a name. But again, I recognized that this was an occupational hazard. That it was only a matter of time to get to the court of law. I couldn't give it any name I wanted. Otherwise, it wouldn't keep to the double standard of law. The double standard of law says that “Before any scientific or medical evidence could be used in the court of law as evidence, there has to be precedence”, meaning someone else must have published or said something about it.
MW: So, this was your motivation, to come up with a name like CTE?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Yes. Yes.
MW: Well, it was legal from the beginning?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Yes. Yes, yes.
MW: Why? Were you foreseeing court cases, already?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Of course, I mean forensic pathologists. Yes. [Laughs] I foresaw a court case very soon in, a matter of years. So, I had to think ahead and be smarter than the system. So, I looked. I went back to the time of Hippocrates, 400 B.C. I identified about 37 names. I chose chronic traumatic encephalopathy because: One, it sounded very exotic and very intellectually sophisticated, but yet it had a good acronym CTE.
MW: It sounds like that MBA in business is coming into play [laughs].
DR. BENNET OMALU: Yes, yes. My business, it was very helpful, exactly, exactly.
MW: Now you were acting defensively, legally already, expecting that there would be court cases. But were you expecting a reaction from the National Football League and if so, what kind of reaction?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Well, the reaction I was expecting was actually that of a positive reaction, because I thought I was helping the sport. I was helping to propagate the truth of science, the truth of the facts of science. But the NFL spun out in a very confrontational and an aggressive manner, dismissed me, and request that my paper be retracted, that I was a fraud.
Mw: and they accused you of practicing…
DR. BENNET OMALU: Criminal behavior. They accused of criminal behavior.
DR. BENNET OMALU: It was unbelievable. But they made a mistake, because what that did was that it brought out the survival instinct in me. I had to fight back, because I saw an interview given by the commissioner of the NFL, you know just like the commissioner of the NHL, these guys are usually very successful, elegant and pompous individuals, and the commissioner was talking about the product of the NFL, which is football. That all they do, they need to make your product better. And the [unintelligible] as he spoke he never referred to the football player himself.
MW: Right. I just want to interrupt you here because we reached out to the NFL for comment, and here's part of what they said, most recently: “Our number one priority is the health and safety of our players and collaboration with our partners at the NFLPA. We work to ensure players receive unparalleled medical care and that our medical policies and protocols are informed by the most up to date scientific and medical consensus.” What's your reaction to that?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Up to date scientific consensus, Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL said that science on traumatic brain injury, CTE, is inconclusive. Now, when you're talking as a physician, if a patient comes to you, in order to cure and treat a patient, you need to find out truth. You cannot find out a cure or a solution to the problems players are having if you're denying the truth.
MW: You were accused of having threatened the heart of American football or American Life, which is a pretty heavy accusation. How have you handled all of this opposition and these accusations hurled at you?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Well, the one that really affected me, professionally and emotionally, was that of my fellow doctors. Even my fellow [unintelligible] pathologists. They denied me, ostracized me, dismissed me, suggest that I was a doctor should not be trusted. Some said just that I was practicing African voodoo medicine. I was totally ostracized, including the National Institute Of health.
MW: Now, you were vindicated. It took some 14 years before the NFL accepted CTE was real. Here's Jeff Miller, the NFL senior vice president for health and safety, at a congressional hearing in 2016.
VOICE 1: Do you think there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE?
JEFF MILLER: Well, certainly Dr. McHugh's research shows that a number of retired NFL players were diagnosed with CTE. So, the answer to that question is certainly yes. But there's also a number of questions that come with that.
MW: That's Jeff Miller the NFL senior vice president for health and safety, last year. Dr. Omalu, after all you've been through, how did that moment feel to you?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Well, you know it has never been about me. It's more about the players. I've made a promise to Mike Webster, to Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, Chris Benoit, Tom McHale, these are the first six cases I had, that I would use all my knowledge and education to make a difference in their lives. I should not be vindicated, but the thing is players and their families have been vindicated. These players were misunderstood because they were ridiculed and laughed at. They thought that they were not handling the obscurity of retirement well. But that wasn't true. These were people whose brain had been damaged by football.
MW: And the players who you say suffered terribly from brain trauma. They were also compensated. The NFL agreed to a one billion dollar settlement to help some of the former players who had suffered brain trauma. They say they have changed their ways, the NFL. For example, they're steering children away from playing the sport, in its regular form, encouraging safer tackling methods and promoting flight football and things like that. Is that enough?
DR. BENNET OMALU: That is not enough. I think the end zone should be when no child under the age of 18, in America, in Canada would stop playing these high impact, high contact, coalition sports.
MW: So, as research continues into CTE, What do you think the future holds for high contact sports like boxing, mixed martial arts, hockey, other sports? I mean is there a future for those sports?
DR. BENNET OMALU: I do not think these sports would disappear. I think what would happen to collision sports is what will happen to petrol powered cars. You know, electric cars, in the next 50-100 years, will become the car everybody drives. There will still be one or two gas powered, petrol powered cars. These sports will still be there, but it will be a sport, you know maybe [unintelligible]. Let me share with you a very true experience. I have a son who is 17 years old. One day, his mom was with him in a McDonald's store. A child walks in with his mom, wearing a football leaded gear and a helmet. My son walked up to him and said: “Why are you playing football?” And the kid looked up my son said: “Why?” My son said: “Haven't you heard this damages your brain?”
MW: Wow. Now, in your mother tongue, Ebu, your last name Omalu means ‘he who knows speaks’. Tell me, has this been a blessing or a curse?
DR. BENNET OMALU: [Laughs] I've always said, I wish I'd never met Mike Webster. I wish I was not on duty that Saturday morning, in September 2002, that some other doctor was on duty. I would not say it's a curse. No. But I wish it was something I did not have to deal with, to be honest with you.
MW: Why is that?
DR. BENNET OMALU: Sorry?
MW: Why is that?
DR. BENNET OMALU: When I came to America, I came to this great country just to be myself, to leave a simple life with a family. I never wanted to be doing my shopping in a grocery store and somebody who come pat me on the back: “Oh my gosh! Are you the concussion doctor?” It's disrupted my life completely. I never wanted that, where people would place more value on money, than on a life of one of us. I don't like that.
MW: Dr. Omalu, thank you very much.
DR. BENNET OMALU: Thank you.
MW: That was Dr. Bennett Omallu. He's the forensic pathologist who discovered the degenerative brain disease CTE. His new book, Truth Doesn't Have a Side, came out this week and he was in New York. That's our program for today. Stay tuned to Radio 1 for a new episode of The Current summer series, The Disruptors. This week YouTube star Jasmeet Singh, aka Jus Reign, explains how comedy helps him call out racist behavior.
JASMEET SINGH: The racism before 9/11 was very, very cartoonish, I would say. So,it was a lot eluding to like, there was the same type of racism that like Apu from The Simpsons get, right. like “ Oh your dad owns a convenience store, gas station, you are taxi drivers, curry, you know, things like that. And then after 9/11 what I noticed was the racism totally switched, straight to like, terrorists. It was straight “You're an Arab” It was straight, you know, you were pinned as like a dangerous member of society, something that people need to steer clear of.
That's up next on The Disrupters. I'm Megan Williams. Thanks for listening to the summer edition of The Current.
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