One review I saw of the recently released movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, made the point that we don’t need another diatribe against the NFL. The rationale being, I think, that everyone is aware that the organization has a shady side. But that’s not what this film is. The main character, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuroscientist who’s originally from Nigeria, doesn’t understand the sport of football at first, but gradually comes to see the appeal for other people, including his wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Although at one point, he says that God did not intend for man to play football, his final position is that those who play deserve to be made fully aware of the risks – some of which are pretty extreme, including brain damage, senility and suicide. One reason? Unlike, say, woodpeckers, homo sapiens have no built-in shock absorbers to withstand repeated blows to the head.
The movie begins with former NFL player Mike Webster’s (David Morse) rapidly deteriorating health, as he’s found living in his car, insisting that there is something wrong with his head to a baffled doctor (Alec Baldwin) and finally committing suicide. Enter Dr. Omalu (Will Smith), a neuroscientist who’s never heard of the football star, but notices something is off while performing an autopsy on him. On his own time and expense, he sends the slides for further examination and discovers the presence of CET, a condition which is present in Alzheimer’s patients. His supervisor (Albert Brooks) is intrigued, though he realizes the probable reaction of the NFL won’t be positive, unlike Will, who naively assumes the organization will be grateful to have the knowledge. Indeed, their reaction is mainly damage control and denial. However, Alec is concerned about the increasing number of untimely deaths of retired pro players, and meets with Will to investigate this condition further. Through professional persecution and racism, Will perseveres until the condition begins to be taken seriously. (It helps, as the epilogue points out, that many players have sued the NFL, in wake of this knowledge.)
One character in the movie makes the comparison to Big Tobacco, which may seem not quite apt. After all, no one gathers with their family and friends to spend a good portion of a day cheering on a group of men smoking. Big Tobacco doesn’t provide scholarships for kids in need, raise money for charity and other philanthropic acts that the NFL does. Nor has anyone ever really believed youth benefits from whole-hearted participation in smoking or that it brings physical and psychological benefits, at least for those in their teens and younger. But the tactics used to discredit those who criticize it are similar (and according to the book by Jeanne Marie Laskas that “Concussion” is based on, Big Tobacco and NFL actually share a lawyer). Still, given football’s popularity in America, it’s hard to believe the claim that acknowledging the presence/possibility of CET would actually destroy the industry. But then, if you’d told me twenty years ago, even after seeing “The Insider,” that one day, smoking outdoors could be banned, I would have thought you were crazy. Surely, it couldn’t really be that harmful. Ah well. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.