Movie review: Concussion

America’s best people are often devout. Their tireless, brave devotion to a singular, individual pursuit, especially in the face of adversity, often gives them the status of hero.

This movie tells the story of one such American, even if he only became an American citizen years after he began heroic efforts that will ease the suffering of the gladiators who collide helmet-to-helmet and entertain us, as we gather with friends in our living rooms or in sports bars every Sunday of every fall: Dr Bennet Omalu. He proves his devotion in several based-on-true-life scenes worked into Will Smith’s portrayal of him in Concussion: devotion to his family, to his work, his boss, his God, his community, and, equally, to his new country and to a game he had not known before coming here but in which his fresh, studious eyes saw things all the rest of us had either missed or intentionally ignored.

Unlike Particle Fever, another scientifically heroic story, not all about Americans, Concussion takes Dr Omalu’s searching, through a scientist’s eyes, for the root cause of the deaths of former football players, even Hall of Famers (Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers) and those who advanced well beyond their days on the field (Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears), and condenses it into two hours with a Hollywood plotline. I would be negligent as a journalist not to point out that Webster and Duerson, whose lives ended in suicide, became heroes to a few Americans in their time as well, not the same kind of hero Dr Omalu has become, even to the game of football, but certainly the type to inspire many to lead a better life.

Sure, the years of failure in scientific experiments don’t make as good a movie as the instant win-loss judgment of football, and much original footage wasn’t available, as it was for Particle Fever. But the story of Dr Omalu’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) following thousands of blows to the head throughout the course of a sports career needed to be told for the masses. The story and Mr Smith’s portrayal of Dr Omalu are somewhat one-dimensional, but I take comfort in knowing that it was at least the devoted, scientific side of Dr Omalu that Mr Smith highlighted, which is the right one for the purposes of this story.

The script was also a bit simplistic, giving too brief a treatment to the NFL’s role of antagonist. The history of the league’s denial, for many years, of the danger of concussion remains undisclosed to this day. But when it comes to science, Americans have also shown a great ability to deny the truth, especially when they selfishly pursue those things they enjoy. Football is, most assuredly, one of those elements in our lives.

Thanks to the scientific work portrayed in this movie, football down to the high school and even pee-wee level has changed.

The Illinois High School Association, which governs high school athletics at Illinois’s 800 or so public and private high schools, formed a committee that started meeting last June. Cole Steward, a junior and three-sport athlete at Salem Community High School in the southern part of the state, is one of two student members on the Play Smart, Play Hard committee.

Mr Steward plays defensive end and tight end. Players on the offensive and defensive lines absorb more hits to the head, according to the movie, than players in any other position, but the running speeds reached by receivers and players in the defensive backfield make the hits they suffer more severe. Many of the hits, Dr Omalu explained, are subconcussive—they injure the brain but not at the level that would result in players showing signs or symptoms of a concussion—and wouldn’t result in players being removed from the game.

“Football is a very big part of the year in high school,” he said. “Everybody’s just waiting for football season to come around, and all the fans are excited.”

However, “the goal of our committee,” he said, “is, we need to keep football around, but we need to keep people safe while they’re playing. We never want to get rid of football, but we have to—I don’t know—adapt the guidelines.”

Some of those guidelines might include, he said, during tackling, “not leading with your head, not using the crown on your helmet, just keeping your head up and using mainly your shoulders to tackle, not your head or your neck. Everything like that.”

Mr Steward suffered a concussion in his sophomore year during a football practice. As he was running downfield to cover a kickoff, accelerating to speeds Dr Omalu diagrammed in the movie on a whiteboard, he collided helmet-to-helmet with a player on the return squad.

His collision during practice triggered a sequence of events often seen in concussion cases. After the helmet-to-helmet collision on the kickoff coverage practice:

I went for a few more drills: offensive lineman drills and D-line drills. It started to get worse, and that’s when I notified my coach and the athletic trainer we have on staff. It was one of those things where you just kind of shake it off, when you get your bell rung, or whatever. You don’t realize it the second it happens.

Luckily, mine wasn’t an extreme case. It was just a mild concussion that had me sidelined for a while. And I had to go through many concussion protocols that my trainer put me through. It was handled very well.

NFL teams, as portrayed in the movie, have actual physicians on staff, of course. But, as Dr Omalu moans and groans, these doctors are often no better when it comes to treating brain injury than athletic trainers “who tape knees” for a living.

Still today, at least one pediatric neurologist thinks parents of high school students dwell a little too much on concussions and needlessly keep students out of the game, in light of the research by Dr Omalu and others who have followed up, instead of encouraging them to participate in a sport that has brought a college education and professional career to a few of them.

“We have a disconnect,” writes Steven M Rothman, former director of the pediatric neurology divisions at Washington University in St Louis and the University of Minnesota, in the New York Times. “At the elite professional level, men and women who suffer obvious brain injury are being left on the field. Meanwhile, too many teenagers who face little chance of long-term brain injury are being kept from playing in healthy organized sports out of an excessive sense of caution.”

A few years ago, Voxitatis called for a moratorium on high school football so it could be studied and adapted in a way that would make it safer. We didn’t expect the IHSA to stop football, I suppose, but contrary to the advice of Dr Rothman, parents are already obsessing over brain safety. One ESPN poll found that about a quarter of all US parents have considered barring their children from certain sports where the risk of brain injury is high.

But it is also the case that about half of all high schools in the US don’t even have an athletic trainer on staff. Mr Steward’s school isn’t one of them, but this trend needs to change if high schools are going to continue to play football. People on the ground at high school games and practices need to be educated in the recognition of and proper treatment protocols for traumatic brain injury.

In fact, in Illinois, Mr Steward said coaches and other school personnel are required to watch educational videos about concussion and to fill out surveys a few times every year about their handling of brain-related injuries. That’s a good start.

It has been our worshiping of sports and, probably, profit or the chance of a scholarship that has forced us into a mode of “toughing it out,” which only puts kids at greater risk of making a concussion or subconcussive brain injury worse. As the Play Smart, Play Hard committee is, too slowly, trying to do, we should instead work to improve the game of football. It’s not the only sport where the risk of brain injury is high, or even the worst offender, but at the high school level, it is still the most popular sport in this category, even with recent small declines in participation nationwide.

We review movies in order to support Illinois Learning Standards in the fine arts, especially 26.A.4b (Understand how the primary tools, support tools and creative processes—researching, auditioning, designing, directing, rehearsing, refining, presenting—interact and shape drama, theater and film production), 26.A.5 (Analyze and evaluate how the choice of media, tools, technologies and processes support and influence the communication of ideas), and 27.B.5 (Analyze how the arts shape and reflect ideas, issues or themes in a particular culture or historical period), among others.

About the Author

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