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Bennet Omalu: A Nigerian-American Hero Nigerians at Home Don’t Know About

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi Dr. Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu is a big deal in America. He is so big a deal that h...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Dr. Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu is a big deal in America. He is so big a deal that he is the subject of a critically acclaimed Hollywood movie called Concussion, which was released on December 25 this year (that is, yesterday!). But chances are most Nigerians reading this article would ask “Bennet who? Who is that?”

That was precisely the response I got when I spoke with a group of Nigerian journalists in Abuja and Kano during a British Council-sponsored workshop I facilitated about a month ago. Not a single journalist had any clue who Dr. Omalu was.
Dr. Bennet Omalu
In the course of the training, our conversation veered off into the topic of the wacky, delusional intellectual scammer called Dr. Enoch Opeyemi who falsely claimed to have solved the Riemann Hypothesis and misled the incredibly credulous Nigerian—and British—media into undeservedly celebrating him before the facts of his intentional misrepresentation became public knowledge.  I wondered why Nigerian journalists—and everyday Nigerians—ignorantly celebrate all the notorious, scorn-worthy intellectual scammers—Enoch Opeyemi, Philip Emeagwali, Gabriel Oyibo, Michael Atovigba, etc.—but ignore genuine heroes of Nigerian descent who are doing truly outstanding things outside Nigeria.

One of the journalists asked me to name one genuine Nigerian hero abroad who has been ignored at home. I asked if they knew about Dr. Bennet Omalu. I got blank stares. Strangely, I wasn’t surprised. To be noticed in Nigeria, especially in Nigeria’s traditional media, you need to understand the art of bluster, of vain and empty conceit. Dr. Omalu apparently didn’t reach out to the Nigerian media, and Nigerian journalists obviously don’t give the time of day to anyone who doesn’t court and cultivate their friendship and attention.

But who is Dr. Omalu and why should we care? So much has been written and said about this man in America that I don’t even know where to start. Well, I think I should start with his claim to fame. Dr. Omalu became famous for being “the first to publish findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in American football players.”

This sounds ordinary on the surface. But it’s actually a lot bigger than it seems. The National Football League (NFL) is America’s richest and most popular sport. No one takes on this American financial and cultural behemoth and comes out alive. But Omalu did—with his brains—and is alive to tell the story. Through careful, studious, self-financed research, Omalu demonstrated that American football players were susceptible to the kinds of brain injuries that boxers, wrestlers, and war veterans suffer as a result of repeated hits to their heads.

The National Football League was outraged by this. Omalu’s findings threatened NFL’s multi-billion-dollar industry. If it is established that playing American football rendered people susceptible to permanent, irreversible brain injuries, the future of the sport—and the billions of dollars it rakes in—was in grave danger. As you would expect, the NFL fought back—and they fought dirty. Dr. Omalu’s credibility and competence were called into question. He was accused of “practicing voodoo,” a subtle racist dig at his Nigerian origins and the supposed intellectual inferiority that this fact implies.

Big-name American medical researchers at the NFL demanded that Omalu’s paper, which was published in the prestigious Neurosurgery journal, be retracted. They said the paper’s findings were flawed. But here is where it gets interesting. Neurosurgery is a double-blind peer reviewed journal, which means articles sent to the journal are normally reviewed by two anonymous expert reviewers who usually don’t know each and who don’t know the identity of the researcher who submits a paper for consideration. If the two reviewers agree that a paper is worthy of publication, usually with minor or major revisions, the paper gets published. If one of the two anonymous reviewers rejects the paper, the journal’s editor may send it to a third anonymous expert reviewer whose decision is crucial to accepting or rejecting the paper.

Although Dr. Omalu’s paper was accepted by the first two anonymous reviewers who first examined it, because of the sensitivity and momentousness of its findings, it was sent to more than 18 other expert reviewers! That is highly unusual. But there was a unanimity of opinion among all the reviewers that Omalu had pushed the boundaries of knowledge in ways no one had, and the paper was published in 2005. So if Omalu’s findings were "wrong," as NFL's doctors alleged, more than 18 top-notch American medical researchers who reviewed his paper must be wrong as well.

Omalu published subsequent papers on the same subject-matter to build a convincing case that playing American football (which isn’t the same thing as “football” in British English) exposes people to the danger of brain damage.

When NFL doctors lost the intellectual battle against him, they shifted the battle to the emotional plain. He was accused of “attacking the American way of life.” "How dare you, a foreigner like you, from Nigeria? What is Nigeria known for? The eighth most corrupt country in the world? Who are you? Who do you think you are to come to tell us how to live our lives?" Omalu quoted NFL officials as saying to him in an interview with the (American) National Public Radio.

After sustained attacks on his credibility, competence, and nationality, the NFL gave up. In 2009, the NFL publicly admitted that Omalu was right. As a consequence, he has become a celebrity here. A book about his accomplishments and struggles, titled Concussion, was written by an American writer and professor by the name of Jeanne Marie Laskas. The movie about him that was released yesterday is based on the book.

Dr. Omalu’s success is every bit Nigeria’s. A native of Nnokwa in the Idemili South Local Government of Anambra State, the 47-year-old Omalu earned his first medical degree from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1990. He first came to the United States in 1994, and it is safe to say that Nigeria provided the backdrop for his genius.

I hope the Nigerian government will recognize and celebrate genuine heroes like Dr. Omalu whose genius is rubbing off on Nigeria internationally.

I have been informed that although  Dr. Bennet Omalu was born in Nnokwa in the Idemili South Local Government Area of Anambra State, his ancestral roots are actually located in Urunnebo village in Enugwu-Ukwu of Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State. 

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