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The Omalu Imbroglio

In 2016, a Hollywood movie was released about the life of Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu, a Nigerian from Idemili South in Anambra State. The film titled “CONCUSSION”, featured Will Smith in the title role.

Omalu was born in September 1968. His father was a mining engineer, and his mother a seamstress. He attended medical school at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Travelling to the United States of America in 1993, he subjected himself to a gruelling run of studies that saw him obtaining a daunting array of qualifications, including Master’s in Public Health, Epidemiology and Business Administration, as well as Fellowships in Pathology and Neuropathology.

Over time he married a Kenyan wife and become an American citizen.

In 2005, while working as a Forensic Pathologist at the County Coroner’s office in Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, he published a paper titled “Chronic Traumatic Brain Injury” in the journal “Neuroscience”.

The thrust of the publication, arising from his observations from examining the brain of Mike Webster, a local hero who had a distinguished career in American football but in his later years developed abnormal behaviour and disturbed cognition, was that playing American football with its inevitable banging of heads over several years led to an accumulation of irreversible brain injuries. These “concussions” led to irreparable damage to the brain.

The publication caused an immediate storm across different sectors of the American landscape. ‘Football’ is a national obsession and a multi-billion-dollar industry. The importance of the game and the industry around it in the scheme of things could be discerned from the drama of the ‘Super Bowl’ that took place last weekend where everyone from President to prisoner on death row turned up or tuned in to watch the game.

If Omalu was right in his conclusions, the implication would be that the sport was dangerous and the stars, instead of being lionized as superheroes, should regarded as victims carrying scars in their brains and adding new scars every time they banged their heads in the course of play. Those injuries, in some of them, would come back to haunt them in later years.

Ben’s postulations also implied that even adolescents playing the game in school were subject to such injuries.

Omalu would later give a name to the condition – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

The ground-breaking implications of Ben’s work and the fact that it came from the personal and determined struggle of an “Immigrant” Nigerian led to the making of the film “CONCUSSION”.

If “Football” were somehow to be declared scientifically ‘unsafe’, American social and sporting culture, and the Big Industry of sports equipment, marketing and sponsorship would be thrown into disarray.

In the years since Ben’s landmark publication, several things have happened. The label Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has been accepted into medical literature, but the names credited with the coining of the description do not include Ben Omalu. In 2016, the National Institute for Health (NIH) constituted a panel of front-line experts to develop guidelines for CTE research. Ben Omalu was not included on the panel.

Omalu himself continues to publish his findings in scientific journals. He gives lectures about the dangers of contact sports and the need for enhanced safety. He has found fame and fortune from the film about his life, and from his autobiography “Truth doesn’t have a side.”

He has also made powerful enemies.

One of them, clearly, is Will Hobson, a Sports Journalist with The Washington Post. In a publication in the newspaper a few days ago, which he titled “From scientist to salesman – how Benet Omalu, doctor of ‘Concussion’ fame built a career on distorted science”, Hobson claims he interviewed “more than 50 experts in neurodegenerative disease and brain injuries”.

According to him, Omalu did not discover CTE, nor did he name it. He tears into Omalu, claiming he has got wealthy from the large fees he charges for his speaking engagements. He quotes a rival researcher from Boston University whose first published work on CTE was several years after Omalu’s in dismissing the importance of Omalu’s work.

Yet, even The Washington Post take-down does not question the fact that Omalu was first out in the field of research tying CTE definitively to “American Football”. If his definitions are ‘over-inclusive’ according to NIH guidelines which were drawn up several years after he coined the term, they fail to explain why the NIH guidelines were drawn up in the first case without including the man who started the whole discussion.

Ben Omalu has come out fists flailing in his own defence against the Washington Post publication. In a rejoinder titled ‘We are becoming a nation of lies’, he describes how he was ridiculed by the NFL, NHL, WWE and ‘established and pre-eminent doctors’ when he first published his findings.

There were no …guidelines for the diagnosis of CTE in 2002 because there was no disease called CTE”

Indeed, The NIH published the first guidelines eleven years after his publication. The Boston researchers quoted by The Washington Post were both at the ‘consensus’ NIH meeting and were named in its published guidelines. He – Omalu was not invited or even informed of the meeting.

There is only one truth, he avers, in conclusion. Truth does not have a side.

Should people be surprised that there is politics, false narrative, perhaps even racism in Science? Afterall some people stand to lose a lot if Omalu is not trimmed to size, even if he cannot be destroyed entirely. There is conceivably the prospect of a Nobel Prize for whoever gets the credit – so important and far-reaching is the discovery.

It is one thing to have black superstar millionaires in Sports and Entertainment. Kobe. Jay-Z. It is another matter to have a ‘nobody’ immigrant from Nigeria receiving the ultimate acclaim for a scientific discovery that may change the way America handles the whole industry of Sports. That, to some people, is truly crossing the line.

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