By: Kevin Jordan
Scientific evidence backing up what we already knew. (Or: DUH.)
If you are an American and own a television, you are well aware of the concussion issue dominating NFL conversations for the past couple of years. If you are a non-brain-damaged human older than nine years old (perhaps even younger), you don’t need a forensic pathologist to convince you that banging your head into other people’s heads hundreds and thousands of times is probably going to cause brain damage. But, we live in a country where a large portion of people believe that seven billion of us wandering the Earth have no impact on the climate (we do), another portion of people believe vaccines cause autism (they don’t), and still other people believe Channing Tatum is a good actor, so sometimes the smarter people among us have to spell things out. Without further ado, I present Dr. Bennett Omalu, the man who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or as some of us like to call it: Duh.
Concussion is the story of Dr. Omalu (played by Will Smith) discovering CTE by examining the brains of deceased football players, then fighting with the NFL to bring that discovery to light. Unsurprisingly, the NFL knew about the effects of concussions for years, but lied about it to its players in order to continue making as much money as possible and avoid the backlash, inevitable lawsuits, and players quitting. You see, the NFL isn’t stupid – its leaders and owners also know that brain damage can occur when two large muscular men smash into each other head first over and over and over again. Like Dr. Omalu says in the film at one point, “It’s common sense.” (This line comes in response to the question “how do you know there will be more cases like Mike Webster” – Webster being the patient yielding the discovery.)
Before you make a judgement about my opinion of football and the NFL, let me tell you about the movie. Will Smith was awesome as Dr. Omalu. Smith is one of those actors that is so big that it’s very difficult to separate him from the role he’s playing. When asked about his performance in any given movie, more often than not you’d say he was playing Will Smith. The next best example I can give you of this phenomenon is Tom Cruise. In other words, every role they play comes off as the same character. But, not this time around for Smith. He did such a good job of getting into character that you forget that he’s Will Smith. Dr. Omalu himself commented (and I’m paraphrasing) “it was like Smith borrowed my soul.” There is no praise higher than that, and Smith earned it.
But Smith wasn’t the only one delivering an Oscar-shattering performance. Albert Brooks (playing Dr. Cyril Wecht, mentor and boss to Dr. Omalu) was fantastic, delivering much of the very necessary comedic relief that keeps the movie from being more depressing than a baby’s funeral. Then there’s Alec Baldwin, who plays Dr. Julian Bailes (former team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers), delivering us a character with an internal struggle between loving a game that goes against his instincts as a doctor. The facial expressions alone throughout the film are worth the price of admission. Rounding it out are the men who portrayed the real-life players – led by David Morse as Mike Webster – who suffered from CTE and eventually killed themselves. You will cringe upon learning about Mr. Webster’s last few months on Earth, and Morse brings it to life in full, horrifying, living color.
Besides the characters, the movie’s pacing is near perfect as it moves us along with Dr. Omalu’s progress over the course of a decade or so. Spliced throughout the movie is archived footage of some of the worst hits and falls captured during football games and this footage is exceptionally effective at hammering home the point Dr. Omalu is trying to make. It forces you to face the fact that football is a much more violent and destructive activity than some of us would like to admit. While Dr. Omalu has stated that he isn’t out to destroy football with this research, Peter Landesman (writer/director) has created a movie that, at the very least, leans in that direction by painting the NFL, as an organization, as the villain in this movie. I may not agree that football should die, but the NFL deserves every bit of criticism (and then some) for their behavior regarding concussions and Dr. Omalu’s research.
(Side note: as I write this, there is a news story about the NFL pulling research funding on concussions because they don’t like the man leading the effort, even though they promised the funding would have no strings attached. Again, they deserve the criticism.)
Personally, I’m on Dr. Omalu’s side when it comes to the fate of the NFL. Like him, I think the real point here is to tell the players the truth so they can make informed decisions. Many a comment board on the concussion story is filled with people saying that players make millions of dollars and know what they are getting into, so we shouldn’t feel sorry for them. The problem is that, according to many, many sources, the players didn’t know because the NFL commissioned bullshit studies (the movie briefly covers this as well) claiming concussions had no long-term effects on the brain. The movie does a great job of explaining the actual science around concussions in terms that anyone can understand, as well as comparing the NFL’s actions to that of how tobacco companies acted similarly back in the 1990’s.
But the real problem those commenters ignore are the millions and millions of people who play football, but don’t make it to the NFL to cash in. I have a three-year old boy who loves to play “football” (he gets in a crouch, then runs at me full speed, chucking a Nerf ball at me at point-blank range). After watching the film, my wife – who already doesn’t want him to play football – said she doesn’t even want him to play “football” in the living room. Aside from the trolls who say this is nothing more than the pussification of America (you know – the ‘real men’), who can blame her? I certainly don’t, because I agree with her – I don’t want him to play football when he is older either; there are plenty of other sports he can play to learn the same positive attributes that people ascribe to football. And, Dr. Omalu agrees too, stating that he believes children under the age of eighteen should not be allowed to play tackle football, but can decide when they are of age. To me, that is perfectly logical and reasonable. The chances of my son making it to the NFL are so slim that the risk just isn’t worth it. And this movie really slams home the likely consequences that these players face after their careers are over, even if they do make it.
Personally, my problem is with me being a fan of football. I have been a Denver Broncos fan my entire life and still watch and enjoy the games. But, how do I reconcile not allowing my son to play football while watching the games as a fan? You’re right – I don’t know either, but I’m going to have to explain it to him at some point. Plus, after learning about how the NFL has acted with this topic (and still seeing how two-faced they are about player safety), I simply can’t enjoy the games like I used to. Maybe you feel differently (especially those people who are so affected by their team’s performance that they will skip work the next day), but this movie is so well done and so poignant that only heartless, callous Neanderthals can dismiss is it as “more liberal political correctness that is making this country soft.”
As I said, I’m not against people playing football and this movie hasn’t changed my opinion on that. I’m even of the opinion that football has put too much emphasis on player safety – it’s a violent game and pretending that it can be made safe so as to assuage fans from feeling guilty for enjoying it is bullshit. If the players know the full truth of the consequences of playing football, than we don’t need to feel guilty because we are now assured that they really do know what they are getting into rather than their employer “assuring” their safety. And that’s the real message of this movie – spreading the truth.
Rating: Do not ask for any money back because you are not a brain-damaged human.