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"Concussion" Doctor Speaks in Tampa Ahead of Movie Premiere

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Dr. Bennet Omalu speaks to an audience at the Straz Center in Tampa ahead of the premiere of a movie based on his work.

A doctor who will be portrayed by actor Will Smith in the upcoming movie, "Concussion," told a Tampa audience how his research into brain injuries has dramatically changed how professional football approaches players.

Bennet Omalu discussed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, at a speech presented by the University of South Florida Frontier Forum Lecture Series at the Straz Center Thursday night.

Omalu discovered CTE in 2002 when he performed an autopsy on the brain of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster. He laid out his findings in a paper published in 2005 in the Neurosurgery journal. 

The forensic pathologist said repeated hits to the head in high-impact contact sports like football have long-term health risks, especially for children.

"There are other options you can choose from,” Omalu said. “(Like) swimming. A retired NFL player said to me one day, 'Take the ball from your son and give him a racket.'"

The research made some waves within the National Football League. 

Omalu told the audience that after his paper was published, the NFL accused him of being a criminal and a fraudulent doctor. But the league has since revised its rules toward concussions.

Jerry Bell, who played tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1980s, was in the audience.  He said in spite of the danger, it's hard to change the culture surrounding football.

"You can change the concussion protocol, you can sit people out a week, you can say you can't go back into the football game, but you can't stop the head trauma and that's the key and that's the one thing that this game can't change," Bell said. "I don't think they can change that."

The movie "Concussion" opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

Daylina Miller is a multimedia reporter for WUSF and Health News Florida, covering health in the Tampa Bay area and across the state.