Sony recently released the trailer for its upcoming movie “Concussion,” just in time for the beginning of the National Football League’s season and it could signify the next “deflate gate” for the league.
It looks like this film will be another chance for viewers to align with an underdog whistleblower going up against a deep-pocketed, powerful, institution. We’ve seen it before. Think “All The President’s Men,” “Silkwood” or “Erin Brockovich,” compelling stories that are engaging and can rally support for the truth-teller’s cause. In this case, prolific box office star Will Smith plays the role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a highly qualified physician who goes up against the Goliath of the NFL. Having come a long way from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Smith appears to be adding yet another facet to his acting repertoire, even speaking with a Nigerian accent.
As Omalu, Smith takes up the cause of the little guy. In this case, the “little guy” is the athlete, otherwise known as the NFL lineman. When is a 6’3” 300-pound lineman, or for that matter, a highly qualified physician a “little guy?” When they go up against a formidable foe like the NFL.
Omalu, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist at UC Davis Medical Center, was the first to identify CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). As the medical examiner for San Joaquin, California he examined the brains of several former professional football players, discovering CTE and was not content to keep it to himself. An earlier variant of this disease had been linked to boxers in the 1920’s, and was suspected in other sports where repetitive head trauma occurs, but was not so inextricably tied to professional football until Omalu. CTE, only definitively diagnosed posthumously, is caused by repetitive concussive and even sub-concussive blows to the head, especially without adequate recovery before returning to the game and the next big hit.
CTE typically includes a broad range of neurologic symptoms like memory impairment, personality changes, depression, mood swings, poor impulse control and eventually dementia.
Several recent former professional football players have reported experiencing similar symptom patterns and ultimately personal despair leading to suicide (e.g. Junior Seau, Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson). Mike Webster, arguably one of football’s all-time greatest centers, was one of the first players whose brain was examined by Omalu. His untimely death at age 50, officially reported to be a heart attack, had attempted suicide multiple times, after his life had unraveled, with financial and marital problems, unemployment, substantial debt and reported homelessness.
Omalu also found evidence of CTE in the brain of Terry Long, another professional football player who took his own life by drinking anti-freeze at the age of 45. Subsequent studies support Omalu’s findings. A new report from the Veterans Administration and Boston University indicates that 87 out of 91 former NFL players’ brains examined show evidence of CTE.
“Concussion” depicts how Omalu went directly to the NFL to share the results of his findings and instead of alarm and concern, he was met with attempts by the league to discredit him, question his science and accuse him of fraud. The story tells how he was pressured to recant his findings and to quietly go away. But Omalu persevered in the whistleblower role, endeavoring to expose the NFL’s attempts to cover up or minimize the problem.
In this case, the dramatic unfolding of Dr. Omalu’s story, underscores the perils of repeated head trauma and reveals a terrifying prospect for many athletes, especially those playing at the highest level of competition, and enticed to do so for bigger and bigger salaries.
Many former NFL players have suspected they too were adversely affected by repeated head trauma and a number have been diagnosed with “likely CTE” or are suffering cognitive symptoms consistent with CTE. Wikipedia lists 18 former players posthumously diagnosed with CTE, 8 others deceased with suspected CTE, and 32 living former players who have publicly reported likely diagnoses or suffering symptoms consistent with CTE. Names of those living who report such symptoms include Tony Dorsett, Brett Farve, Jamal Lewis, Mark Duper, and Jim McMahon.
Earlier this year the threat of debilitating outcomes from repetitive head trauma led Chris Borland to retire from professional football just after his rookie year. The 24-year-old, a key defensive player with the San Francisco 49ers, announced that he made his decision after researching the neurodegenerative disease and after consultation with former players and concussion experts. Omalu was onto something and the repercussions keep coming.
As many as 5000 ex-NFL players, or their estates, have been named in lawsuits against the NFL for concussion-related injuries sustained playing professional football. A class-action lawsuit combining lawsuits led to an initial settlement in 2014 of over $700 million dollars, but another agreement reached in 2015 eliminated a maximum payout amount, instead providing up to $5 million per former player. Under greater and greater pressure to openly acknowledge and deal with the threat of CTE, the NFL eventually created a comprehensive safety protocol for concussion management.
The multi-faceted program includes mandatory preseason concussion education, individual player concussion histories, baseline neuropsychological testing, a certified athletic trainer observing at each game, a standardized sideline concussion assessment, experts on the sideline, and a return to play protocol to be followed if concussed. As an example, it is this recent protocol that kept the Carolina Panthers’ star linebacker, Luke Kuechly out of their matchup with the Houston Texans on September 20th, following a concussion he sustained in the prior week’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Sony’s “Concussion” is not the only time the link between CTE and professional football has been reported in the media (you can find a growing number of articles and human interest stories from sources like CNN and Sports Illustrated, the book and subsequent movie “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis”). But this film’s dramatic tale of the man who stood up to the NFL, and their response to Omalu may have the power and enough public exposure to stir the pot in a more prominent way. This may happen in part, given the timing of the trailer and the movie.
The release of the trailer at the start of the season sensitizes the viewer to the concussion issue as they watch the season unfolding. The movie’s scheduled December release in theaters across the country will be highlighting the raw side of this issue as the football season is reaching its peak, when it is most competitive, playoff berths are being determined, and the Super Bowl will be looming. Although Sony has already caved to the Goliath that is the league by apparently editing the script to make it less damaging to the NFL, expect this movie to have an impact that may take the air out of an otherwise exciting, entertaining, and no doubt profitable football season.