Upon reflection, my very first exposure to the NFL aka “American Football” had to be in the 80’s when the Super Bowl became big ticket events in Nigeria because of the halftime performances. I remember at a very early age not understanding the game and also trying to compare it to Rugby. The one thing that stood out was the sheer physical nature of the game and how hard those tackles were. I remember my mother saying “I hope you never plan to play this dangerous sport”.
Fast forward 30 years and sports analysts and NFL enthusiasts are now engrossed in a medical term known as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), which according to PR newswire is a form of encephalopathy that is a progressive degenerative disease, which can currently only be definitively diagnosed postmortem. In March 2014, researchers announced the discovery of an exosome particle created by the brain which has been shown to contain trace proteins indicating the presence of the disease. The disease was previously called dementia pugilistica (DP), i.e. “punch-drunk”, as it was initially found in those with a history of boxing. CTE has been most commonly found in professional athletes participating in American football, Association football, ice hockey, professional wrestling, and other contact sports who have experienced repetitive brain trauma. It has also been found in soldiers exposed to a blast or a concussive injury.
One of the pioneers of the research that discovered and named this degenerative disease is Dr. Bennett Omalu, a forensic pathologist who is the Chief Medical Officer of San Joaquin County in California and a Professor in the University of California Davis Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Dr. Omalu is of Nigerian origin but has resided in the US for over 30 years. Through his research he discovered this disease and was able to link it to the death of certain NFL athletes such as Mike Webster, after CTE was found in his brain during an autopsy. He wrote a book called “Play Hard, Die Young”. His story is being adapted into a major motion picture called “Concussion”, and Hollywood Blockbuster icon Will Smith will play the character of Dr. Omalu.
We all know Will Smith. In 2007, Newsweek referred to him as “The most powerful actor in Hollywood”. You ask why? Well, over the last 20 years, where he has done 21 films in a leading role, those movies have earned $6.6 billion. Basically, if you are looking for a big actor to portray your story, there is no actor bigger than Will Smith. The movie Concussion will come out on Christmas day 2015.
Ever since the trailer for the movie came out, there have been a few social media discussions about how authentic Will Smith’s accent was, given that he is playing a Nigerian. Nigerians from all walks of life have made their displeasure known about how the accent sounded more Southern African (Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa) than anything close to West African, and more specifically Nigerian. Such questions as to why a “Nigerian” couldn’t play the role or why Will Smith couldn’t learn a proper Nigerian accent have been circulating all over the place.
The challenge with such perspectives is that it deviates from the purpose of what Will Smith is trying to accomplish. This story is about one of the most profound developments in sports in the last 30 years as it has fundamentally changed the regulations around hitting in the NFL. In addition to that, the NFL on August 30, 2013 reached a $765 million settlement with former NFL players over their head injuries. The settlement created a $675 million compensation fund from which former NFL players can collect depending on the extent of their conditions. Frankly speaking, this was astonishing given that the NFL is behemoth institution that nobody takes on and wins. So why on earth should it matter if “the most powerful actor in Hollywood” gets the accent right or not when there is a bigger mission at hand of letting the word know of this disease and the impact it has on life after sports for several NFL players?
Hollywood has a history of regionalizing accents and they get it wrong a good percentage of the time. Call it creative license or sheer standardization to culturally identify but at the same time ensure that the primary audience (USA) can understand what is being said.
Dr. Omalu is a remarkable human being who has probably saved the lives of hundreds of athletes. He achieved this feat practicing medicine in America and pushing this agenda in a very American game. He just happens to be Nigerian.
In a situation like this, the story is more important than an accent and that story is being told by one of the world’s biggest story tellers.
As a Nigerian, I am extremely proud of Dr. Omalu and I am so excited at the fact that a Hollywood Star such as Will Smith is about to play this role.
Credit to everyone involved in this project and may the lives of NFL athletes be spared as a result of this.
Located in Lagos, Nigeria, Nwaji Jibunoh is War Room Sports’ International Soccer Contributor. Nwaji also contributes commentary on U.S. sports from an international perspective. He’s an Atlanta Falcons fan, Howard University alum, and former tight end for the North Atlanta High School Warriors.