December 23, 2015

‘Concussion’ doctor’s Catholic faith gave him courage to tackle the NFL

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Doctor Bennet Omalu attends an advance screening of Sony Pictures' new movie Concussion at Regal Cinemas Gallery Place 14 on December 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Kris Connor for Sony Pictures

Doctor Bennet Omalu attends an advance screening of Sony Pictures' new movie Concussion at Regal Cinemas Gallery Place 14 on December 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Kris Connor for Sony Pictures

WASHINGTON (RNS) The doctor at the center of the new movie “Concussion” says his Catholic faith gave him the courage to pursue the truth about concussions in U.S. professional football.

“What is there to be afraid of?” Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-American forensic pathologist, said in an interview with RNS. “If I profess to be a Christian seeking the truth, why would I stop?”

Omalu, 47, is played by actor Will Smith in the film that opens in theaters across the country on Christmas Day. The story follows how he challenged the National Football League over the destructive nature of concussions after performing the autopsy of Hall of Famer “Iron Mike” Webster. Webster was a Pittsburgh Steeler who ended up homeless from the condition Omalu dubbed “chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”


MORE: What’s God got to do with football devotion? Plenty


Alec Baldwin, left, and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures' "Concussion." Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

Alec Baldwin, left, and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures’ “Concussion.” Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.

“You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week … the same day that church used to own,” Dr. Cyril Wecht, Omalu’s supervisor portrayed by actor Albert Brooks, tells him in the movie.

In the RNS interview, Omalu said his was a quest motivated by both faith and science.

“Faith and science go together,” he said. “They are not antagonistic to each other. There is the humanity of science. Science seeks the truth. Faith seeks the truth. So there is a commonality between science and faith.”

“I think the faith community’s a very powerful agent of change, agent of information, education and enlightenment,” he said in a question-and-answer session after the screening, adding that he is “not anti-football.”

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and communications director at Yale Divinity School. His most recent book is "The Evangelicals You Don’t Know." Photo courtesy of Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker, author of “Onward Christian Athletes.” Photo courtesy of Tom Krattenmaker

Some of football’s loudest cheerleaders have been sports ministries, which enlist players and coaches to promote Christianity. They have generally been loath to question the ethics of football, even as evidence mounted about the dangerous effects of traumatic brain injuries, said Tom Krattenmaker, author of “Onward Christian Athletes.”

“My sense is that the Christian ministries and the Christians in and around big-time football aren’t saying much about the issue,” he said.

“I think it’s Teflon. There is so much invested in big-time football in this country in terms of money, culture, emotion, passion that I just don’t see pro football’s popularity waning anytime soon.”

But some sports ministry experts have had doubts. Shirl James Hoffman, author of “Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports,” wrote in 2010 that Christians should favor less violent sports such as golf, swimming and track.

In 2016, Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary will launch a “Running the Race Well” initiative to help high school students be aware of the potentially harmful consequences of playing sports.


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Baylor University sports ministry director John B. White said sports-related injuries tend to get less attention than violence of other sorts — police, domestic and racial.

“What has happened is that some faith-minded folks have been taken captive to the logic ‘It is what it is’ instead of asking, ‘Is this the way we ought to play sports?’” he said. “We do not get a pass on this matter just because we derive pleasure from such activities.”

Some spiritual leaders are calling on the NFL to use part of its profits to help the injured players who helped generate them.

“These players will need someone to see them through the real hard times,” Sister Jenna, founder of the Meditation Museum in Silver Spring, Md., and a football fan, wrote in The Huffington Post.

Khadija Gurnah, a Connecticut-based Muslim writer on the MomsRising.org blog, said watching a screening of the film “raised critical questions that I need to explore as my children start to consider competitive sports.”

The real-life battle that Omalu began continues. Former professional players asked an appeals court last month to reject a $1 billion settlement the NFL offered them for concussion-related injuries because it did not include future payments for CTE.

Video courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment via YouTube

(Adelle M. Banks is production editor and a national reporter for RNS)