A pathologist whose discoveries have led to greater understanding of concussions in sports and better protection against head injury for athletes has been selected for the United States Sports Academy’s highest award in sports medicine.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, of Sacramento, Calif., has been selected for the 2016 Dr. Ernst Jokl Sports Medicine Award by the United States Sports Academy.
The Dr. Ernst Jokl Sports Medicine Award, named in honor of the former Olympic athlete, international sports medicine scholar, and Director of the University of Kentucky Rehabilitation Center, is given annually to an individual for his or her contributions to the growth and development of sport medicine through practice and/or scholarly activity. The recipient exhibits a mastery of some aspect of sports medicine through practice or research, is well known in the sports medicine field and has an abiding belief in and practice of ethical behavior in pursuit of knowledge.
Omalu is a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist whose autopsy of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster led to his discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, in football players. Omalu is currently chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, Calif., and is an associate clinical professor in the University of California, Davis Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
In 2002, as a medical examiner in Pittsburgh, Pa., Omalu performed an autopsy on Webster, a National Football League (NFL) legend who had died suddenly and unexpectedly, following years of struggling with cognitive and intellectual impairment, destitution, mood disorders, depression, drug abuse, and suicide attempts. Although Webster’s brain looked normal at autopsy, Omalu sensed something wasn’t right, and persisted by conducting independent and self-financed sophisticated tissue analysis of Webster’s brain. He identified microscopic findings in Webster’s brain that led to his discovery of a variant of a disease previously found in boxers, and which he gave the name “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy” (CTE). The disease is linked to individuals who suffer repeated concussions or blows to the head.
Over the next several years, Omalu found evidence of CTE in retired NFL players including Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long, Andre Waters, and Tom McHale among others. He also discovered CTE in Chris Benoit, a World Wrestling Entertainment professional wrestler, and in war veterans who were diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The disease has since been discovered in more than 90 NFL players including legendary safety Dave Duerson, Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, and Hall of Fame Quarterback Ken Stabler. Currently, CTE may be presumptively diagnosed in living patients based on the constellations of symptoms, but confirmatory diagnosis is performed through autopsy, when brain tissue can be analyzed.
Since discovering and diagnosing the first known cases of CTE, Omalu has devoted his life to help affected families and individuals. His work has revolutionized public understanding and treatment of all types of traumatic brain injuries with applications in public health management, public policy, and sports administration policy. Omalu and other doctors across a variety of specialties continue to work on expanding public understanding of this debilitating and life-threatening disease. Omalu has testified before Congress on traumatic brain injuries.
Omalu’s work has been a catalyst for advancement of athletic competition to better prevent head injury, including improvement of safety equipment such as football helmets; rules changes to reduce injury; and enhanced medical protocols to address concussions. His work has touched all levels of sport, from youth to professional.
Omalu’s life-long dedication to CTE and traumatic brain injury sufferers and their families inspired a group of supporters from the scientific community, as well as from the sports, arts, and entertainment world, to launch a foundation in his name. The Bennet Omalu Foundation is committed to funding research, raising awareness, providing care, and finding cures for people suffering from CTE and traumatic brain injury.
Omalu in 2008 wrote a book, “Play Hard, Die Young: Football Dementia, Depression, and Death,” published by Neo Forenxis. His work has been featured in the New York Times best-selling book, “Concussion,” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, published by Random House in 2015, and in the 2015 film “Concussion,” starring Will Smith.
Omalu, 47, was born during the Nigerian-Biafran civil war, in Nnokwa, Nigeria, in 1968 as the sixth of seven children. His mother was a seamstress and his father a mining engineer and revered local leader, who strongly encouraged his career in medicine and commitment to public service.
Omalu attended medical school starting at age 16 at the University of Nigeria. After graduating in 1990, he completed a clinical internship, followed by three years as an Emergency Room Physician and General Practitioner in a city hospital and a rural village. Fulfilling his life-long dream to live in the United States, he first came to Seattle, Wash., in 1994 to complete an epidemiology fellowship at the University of Washington. Omalu found his true calling in pathology, a specialty concerned with the cause and effects of diseases, when he began a residency through Columbia University at Harlem Hospital Center. After residency, he served as a forensic pathologist at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, becoming interested in neuropathology, which studies diseases of the nervous tissue including the brain.
Omalu completed fellowships in forensic pathology and neuropathology through the University of Pittsburgh, and received a Master of Public Health in epidemiology in 2004 at the University of Pittsburgh. He received his Master of Business Administration from Carnegie Mellon University in 2008. Omalu holds board certifications in anatomic pathology, clinical pathology, forensic pathology and neuropathology.
The Dr. Ernst Jokl Sports Medicine Award is part of the United States Sports Academy’s Awards of Sport, which each year serve as “A Tribute to the Artist and the Athlete.” The Academy presents the awards to pay tribute to those who have made significant contributions to sport, in categories as diverse as the artist and the athlete in several different arenas of sport. The awards honor exemplary achievement in coaching, all-around athletic performance, courage, humanitarian activity, fitness, and media, among others. The Academy’s American Sport Art Museum and Archives (ASAMA) annually recognizes these men and women through its Sport Artist of the Year, Honorary Doctorates, Distinguished Service Awards, Medallion Series, Outstanding Athletes, Team of the Year and Alumni of the Year awards.
Based in Daphne, Ala., the United States Sports Academy is an independent, non-profit, regionally accredited, special mission sports university created to serve the nation and world with programs in instruction, research, and service. The role of the Academy is to prepare men and women for careers in the profession of sports. For more information about the Academy, call (251) 626-3303 or visit www.ussa.edu.
By Keith Ayers
Keith Ayers is the Director of Communications at the United States Sports Academy. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.