In 2005, Dr Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian doctor living in the US, published a paper about a degenerative brain disease. This disease was causing serious personality changes, violent behavior, memory loss, and even suicide. People— famous people— were exhibiting these horrendous symptoms for years, but no doctors had published papers or studied it enough to come up with a cohesive theory of how these symptoms were connected.
The famous people exhibiting these symptoms were American football players.
To discover things, you have to be curious enough to ask questions. New questions, yes, but sometimes the new question is the obvious question. And when it comes to the sacred game of football, no American wants to ask the obvious question: could it be possible exposing people to repeated concussions from a young age has serious long-term repercussions?
It takes a Nigerian to ask that.
A Nigerian can sit back and watch a game of football and count the number of times someone’s head gets bashed, and not get caught up in the intensity of the game, or the nostalgia of the first football game he ever watched with his Dad.
Sometimes we’re blind to what’s right under our noses.
Sometimes, though, we’re also blind because we choose to be blind.
The NFL had information about this brain disease (it’s called CTE) but was suppressing the information. And it took a Nigerian to have the guts to call it out. When the information about CTE became public, no major changes to the way the game is practiced or played were seriously implemented, no age restrictions put on “little league” football… Some people blame the NFL for being slow about moving their feet but you could also blame all the “football moms” who cart their sons out there from sixth grade, or all the fans who watch every Sunday.
We love football.
We don’t want to ask the hard questions.
Today there is a small amount of safety measures that are beginning to be implemented, as well as more openness about the risks of CTE. But without this Nigerian doctor, I don’t think we would have even these small steps.
I watched Concussion, the movie based on this issue, on the airplane a few weeks ago. It made me realize yet again why we need diversity in every sector of society. Research shows diverse teams are stronger teams— and it’s for this reason— we don’t know that we’re blind. Sometimes we need someone with different life experience, a different culture, a different gender, a different way of seeing to ask the obvious question, to take a different angle, to come up with a new strategy.
The other day we were talking about previously white schools in South Africa whose staff are not as diverse as the rest of South Africa (or even their student population). Now some pressure is coming on these schools to transform. And there are the usual arguments about “qualifications” and the worry that unqualified people will be placed in positions and the quality of education will go down. There are many ways to approach why all this worry about unqualified people is pointless, but I’ve been thinking about the Concussion scenario lately. And I think it highlights something that is not even on people’s minds at all when they talk about what it means to be qualified. Nobody talks about the actual value that is added to an organization because of diversity. Diversity makes us smarter.
Let’s say I’m a new teacher with a great reference letter and I apply for a post at a school where the majority of teachers are white. And a black person with a good reference letter also applies. We’re both qualified. But this black candidate brings something to this specific team that I can’t bring— their experiences that come from being black in South Africa. This is a unique perspective that this team is currently lacking. Any employer in their right mind would surely want the person who would make their team the strongest. And in this case it’s the black person. Because they are black, they have some added value that I as a white person cannot add to this team.
In a teaching position, there is the added importance of providing quality role models: research has shown that it is extremely important in racial identity development to be exposed to successful people of your own race. If I were a principal, I would want my young black students to have quality black teachers to look up to.
We worry that if we bring on black teachers to our staff teams, quality will go down, we won’t be able to compete, we’ll be watering down our standards, we will be lowering the bar to let people in “just because they’re black”. We say, “Let’s not look at race, let’s just look at the qualifications.”
But we are completely blind to the fact that as the staff team is right now— predominantly white— we don’t have the strongest team. We think we’re being fair when we take race out of the equation, and we want to blame people for reverse racism— but what if we’re actually missing out on different perspectives and quality role models for our students?
America is full of top-quality doctors. It has some of the best medical schools and research institutions in the world. But it took a Nigerian to publish the research that will possibly save the lives of American football players for years to come.