Saturday, June 6, 2020
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Movie preview: Concussion

A movie starring Will Smith, Concussion, is due to be released wide in US theaters on Christmas Day, but it is already getting coverage in papers like the New York Times.

Mr Smith plays Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist from Nigeria who first noticed chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brains of former NFL players. According to the Times, the story has been cleaned up a little so as not to pick a fight with the NFL.

“Will is not anti-football (nor is the movie) and isn’t planning to be a spokesman for what football should be or shouldn’t be but rather is an actor taking on an exciting challenge,” the paper quoted Dwight Caines, president of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, as saying in an email sent to to studio executives about how to position the movie. “We’ll develop messaging with the help of N.F.L. consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.”

But that story is about how men suffer significant brain injuries just by playing the game, injuries that leave them debilitated and mentally unstable before they’re much older than 40. Many of them have committed suicide.

The film’s writer and director, Peter Landesman, an investigative journalist, told Robert Mays of Grantland.com, that he had first heard of CTE “the day Dave Duerson committed suicide.” Duerson played for the Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears and finished his career as a safety with the Phoenix Cardinals, only to commit suicide in 2011. “I remember it very clearly. I’d say about five years ago.”

Duerson’s brain was sent to Boston University for research on CTE, where neurologists confirmed he had CTE as a result of the concussions he suffered during his playing career.

For Dr Omalu, the unlikely hero of the story, it was a struggle against the NFL, which saw a tremendous loss of profits coming as a result of any medical research that would state the obvious but inconvenient truth that football is a dangerous game. “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week,” one character in the move tells him, referring to the NFL and Sunday.

But, “They have to listen to us; this is bigger than they are. … If they continue to deny my work, men will continue to die,” Dr Omalu stands firm.

A Frontline documentary on PBS ran several stories about concussions suffered in the NFL, and some of those stories suggest CTE starts during youth football. The movie’s not due out until the middle of the NFL season and about a month after the Illinois high school football season ends, but it is well worth a look, I think.

We plan to review this movie when we can send someone to see it, but as a preview, the sheer honesty of the filmmaking, excruciatingly accurate and on-point, about a game that gets higher attendance across the US in high school than any other athletic activity, merits consideration as an Oscar contender. The question of football is destined to become one of the biggest dilemmas in high school sports.

Again, we call on high school associations to change the way the game is played in such a way that no traumatic brain injury is caused in the course of routine play. It’s the only way to save the game, and so many people love football.

And because people love football as much as they do and the damage being cause to young men’s brains is so severe, the story tells itself. “We didn’t have a need to make up anything because it was powerful and revelatory on its own,” Mr Landesman told the Times. “There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the N.F.L.”

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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