In ‘Concussion,’ a Gentle Doctor Shows the Dark Side of Football

concussion

The new film Concussion, which exposes the far-reaching consequences of head injuries that football players suffer on the field, will make you rethink the glory of the game, writes Roopa Unnikrishnan  in this review. Unnikrishnan is the founder of Center10 Consulting, which focuses on innovation, strategy, and organizational change. Find her on Twitter @roopaonline.

“By dying, they speak for the living. And I — I speak for them, that is all I do.” — Bennet Omalu, as portrayed by actor Will Smith in Concussion.

Will Smith may be the lead actor in Concussion — the Golden Globes-nominated film about brain damage that football players suffer when they repeatedly get concussions — but the real star of the movie is CTE.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is a disease that affects people who suffer multiple head injuries and concussions. Among the endnotes of the film is this chilling fact: The National Football League’s actuaries have calculated that as many as 28% of their nearly 1,700 players could be diagnosed with CTE. This exacts a tremendous human cost: Victims experience memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, parkinsonism, and, eventually, progressive dementia.

Smith plays the role of Bennet Omalu, a medical doctor and forensic pathologist who discovered CTE after doing an autopsy on Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster. But his research was suppressed by the National Football League. Despite concerns that the movie has been watered down to appease the NFL, it still packs a punch. You see clips of players perhaps as young as five or six years old practicing head-on collisions and falling back dazed from the impact of standard training maneuvers. We also see the reprehensible behavior of die-hard fans as they hound the quiet doctor and his wife. At one point, even the government gets involved: Two FBI agents trump up charges against Omalu’s mentor and agree to drop them only if the doctor stops his research.

“The movie deftly captures the anguish experienced by great football players … as they descend into the black hole of CTE.”

The movie portrays Omalu as a meticulous physician with gentle manners –perhaps in a bit of overplaying by Hollywood. But you get the sense that he is someone who wants to get to the truth and tell it to the world. Asked why he persists in the face of persecution, he says his role is to tell young players about the dangers of the sport: “They have to know!” It’s the NFL’s denial that rankles; it brushed aside all the research and set out to destroy him.

Indeed, the NFL’s doctor, Andre Waters, refuted medical proof from Omalu. “The NFL is a blessing and a salvation,” Waters said. The NFL brought jobs and entertainment to Pittsburgh where Omalu was initially based.

The movie deftly captures the anguish of great football players such as Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, Dave Duerson and Webster as they descend into the black hole of CTE. Twitter  Actors portray these legends with rare grace in scenes that are tough to watch. Especially heart-wrenching are the appeals from their mothers and wives. Be prepared to be shaken by their stories.

I wrote about Omalu in 2013 when PBS aired a scathing documentary on the issue called League of Denial. Concussion beautifully captures his steadfast integrity in the face of pressures and threats. His compassionate yet zealous efforts to understand the death of Webster starts the movie with a bang.

Omalu is a Nigerian by birth who knew little about American football — he didn’t watch it even though he lived in a football-crazy city — and he was not familiar with the legendary Webster. All he knew was that he was conducting the autopsy of a favored son of the city who had died a madman — a 50-year old athlete whose brain showed the wear and tear of a septuagenarian. The game had battered his body, but more tellingly, his brain. It was then that Omalu discovered CTE.

The movie shows Omalu to be a respectful, caring, persistent and thoughtful doctor, who was absolutely the right person to work on Webster. He served the football player and his family in ways no fan ever did — discovering the truth behind Webster’s tragic last years that was the result of the disease, not his personal flaws.

“You get a sense that history will not treat the league and NFL Commissioner Roger Godell kindly.”

In the movie, other characters are drawn with more extreme brush strokes. Danny, a pathologist, comes across as a boorish supervisor. He did not approve Omalu’s tests and made him spend more than $20,000 of his own money to get under the skin of Webster’s illness. Danny reminds me of people who are so vested in the status quo that they behave almost in an inhuman way when faced with change.

The movie captures the role of the honest outsider perfectly, and Smith delivers a stirring portrayal of the doctor. There is the gentle wringing of the hands, the sparkle in his eyes as he describes his dream of becoming an American. Smith works the role — you see him staying deeply rooted in the science, creating coalitions with experts in the field, seeking out those who can influence the NFL. You also see him working hard to understand other points of view, even listening closely as his wife describes football as poetry.

In contrast, the NFL does not come across well in the movie. The league did not engage constructively with Omalu on his research, and in doing so it may have condemned hundreds of players to CTE. You get a sense that history will not treat the league and NFL Commissioner Roger Godell kindly.

Directed by Peter Landesman, who also wrote the screenplay, Concussion is an engaging movie packed with powerful moments. But the bigger takeaway is that it will make you rethink the glory of the game.

Citing Knowledge@Wharton

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