by Irvin Muchnick
Bennet Omalu was invited by Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California to sit with her at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night. This likely means Obama will make Omalu one of the honored citizens who take staged bows during the president’s speech.
Bully for all of them. Now let’s see if they do anything substantial about reducing the exposure of kids from participation in tackle football.
I don’t mean issuing proclamations from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on the need for science “to make football safer” and “find a cure for” chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I mean something more in line with Omalu’s New York Times op-ed “Don’t Let Kids Play Football” — a principle missing in action at his corrupt new foundation at the University of Pittsburgh, which includes the head doctor for Pop Warner Football who spews the inane truther line that there have been “no deaths in youth football.”
When history writes the contemporary chapter, I believe the latest “awareness” boomlet, sparked by the Concussion movie, will be doomed to the same dustbin containing the alleged comprehensive overhaul of the sport once undertaken on the initiative of President Theodore Roosevelt.
This interpretation requires a contrarian view of Omalu as something more than a Nigerian naif who couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about American football. Rather, we must understand that he is and always has been a clever media manipulator whose celebrity rests as much on his graduate degree in marketing as it does on his medical and scientific credentials.
In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with the skill of cinema’s latest Will Smith protagonist in tugging discreetly at an opponent’s jersey in the scrum of authenticity, and in service of his own popular validation. Recall that Rosa Parks — whose refusal to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 paved the way for the modern civil rights movement — was no helpless victim. She was a shrewd leader of the local NAACP chapter actively searching for a vehicle to galvanize history — and she found it. The public conversation is treacherous waters. Those who plunge into them at the highest political levels need to navigate with sophistication.
I doubt, however, that Omalu is the Rosa Parks of America’s football wake-up call. He seems to be just one of the many entrepreneurs of academia, trafficking in big public health ideas but in the end all too willing to bend to moneyed interests.
The Omalu who confronted Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall of Fame center, on an autopsy slab in 2002, had already been in the United States for eight years. Thanks to examination by Deadspin of Sony Pictures emails, we now also know that Omalu is a cousin of countryman Amobi Okoye, a former National Football League tackle. See “How Sony Changed Concussion to Make the NFL (Or Their Lawyers) Happy,” http://deadspin.com/how-sony-changed-concussion-to-make-the-nfl-or-their-l-1749686299.
Much of the “Sony hack” angle leaves me unimpressed. I don’t think Roger Goodell (or more importantly, his 32 team owner employers) cares whether he comes off in the film as a pronounced bad guy or a banal corporate suit. The NFL clearly is the villain of Concussion, and none of the members of its billionaire boys’ club is bursting into tears over that. All the league cares about is (a) legal liability and (b) the ultimate public opinion takeaway.
And here is where the Amobi Okoye revelation hits the target. The final Concussion movie script, Deadspin reports, cuts “a complete subplot about [the] Nigerian-born defensive tackle — Omalu’s cousin — who ended up in a coma for three months with a brain injury.”
Coincidentally, in an interaction too private for me to reveal all the details right now, I had just learned that Omalu was also a good friend of Christian Okoye, the Kansas City Chiefs’ “Nigerian Nightmare” fullback who won the NFL rushing title in 1989. (According to the Deadspin article, Amobi and Christian Okoye are not related, but their families lived on adjoining land in Nigeria.)
Dissident football historian Matt Chaney has a theory, with which I agree, that Bennet Omalu proved the perfect mediating figure for the NFL’s spin of the Concussion narrative. In a nutshell, he was allowed to glorify himself therein as the out-of-nowhere discoverer of CTE in football — an absurd proposition — with the upshot being that the movie focused on the tribulations of the besieged researcher rather than on the direct story of CTE victims Webster and others.
Chaney: “Omalu was the good middle ground. The obvious story is Mike Webster and family and the CTE torture down to kids. But the NFL won’t allow that one without a big fight. So Bennet, particularly for his self-enrichment tale about Flat Earth before 2002, was a reasonable allowance.”
Co-opted or not, it isn’t too late for Bennet Omalu to transform his fool’s gold into the real thing. Such an across-the-grain cutback could even happen after his Hollywood temptation cycle plays out. But as his self-aggrandizing, critically muted public profile currently profiles, he is out of the game.
That, my friends, is the real State of the American Football Union.
Complete links to our series, “How the ‘Concussion’ Movie Devolved From a Humanist Project to a Money Grab,” are at https://concussioninc.net/?p=10632.