Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

January 31, 2016

Concussion: A Hard-Hitting Look at the NFL

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“Let’s say you run a multibillion-dollar football league. And let’s say the scientific community — starting with one young pathologist in Pittsburgh and growing into a chorus of neuroscientists across the country — comes to you and says concussions are making your players crazy, crazy enough to kill themselves, and here, in these slices of brain tissue, is the proof. Do you join these scientists and try to solve the problem, or do you use your power to discredit them?”

This is the opening of a GQ article called “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas. “Game Brain” serves as the main source material for the sports drama Concussion, a film that describes the controversy surrounding the NFL’s attempt to ignore the danger of the title injury.

Directed by Peter Landesman, the film focuses on the major findings of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), who noted the severe damage that concussions can cause professional football players. The NFL tries to deny his findings and, throughout the film, he attempts to persuade people that his results are valid.

Omalu is a forensic pathologist based outside of Pittsburgh who came to America from Nigeria. Upon performing the autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse), Omalu discovers brain damage that rarely occurs in such a young person. He later finds that multiple concussions caused Webster’s frontal lobe to become severely damaged and caused cognitive issues, including dementia, amnesia and other physical and psychological pain.

As other football players start to experience similar symptoms, the truth surfaces concerning the true head trauma that football players suffer. Similar to how the cigarette companies persuaded their consumers that smoking was not linked to lung cancer, the NFL tries to cover up football’s health risks.

With the help of Dr. Julian Bales (Alec Baldwin) and Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu fights the NFL board’s false claims with medical evidence. Even though Omalu’s findings were suppressed for a while, concussions are growing more common in football players and their dangers are better understood, due to his and his colleagues’ research.

Omalu finds that all football players who suffer mentally and physically from head injuries have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, clearly due to multiple concussions over an extended period of time. Even though evidence was not detected on certain scans, it became clearer as more football players experienced the same symptoms.

Although the Academy failed to nominate Smith for his role in Concussion, it is important to note the effort that Smith and his supporting cast put into their roles. Smith and Landesman spent time observing autopsies, including a few done by Bennet Omalu himself. Alec Baldwin also observed doctors in Pittsburgh to better understand his role in the film. Unfortunately, Concussion did not receive a single Oscars nomination. Its compelling story deserved consideration for this award.

Since the film is based on such a recent story and there is much being done to prevent serious head injuries for football players, Concussion could serve as a springboard to other investigations. For a while, the NFL attempted to mitigate Omalu’s claims and argued that the league was not at fault for the severe head trauma that players sustained during their careers.

However, the NFL is definitely the target that Landesman aims at. He knows that the contact sport is a major part of many fans’ lives and targets only the NFL, not football as a whole. He says that he ensured that there is beautiful footage of football in the movie, and there is. It “embraces what’s great and graceful about it,” Landesman said. This is made evident throughout, as his chosen gameplay clips show the game’s beauty. The spirit of the game is not lost. Clearly the NFL is the issue; their regulations are good, but not good enough.

Another filmmaker could also potentially collect lots of first-hand accounts and evidence for a more in-depth documentary in response to this well-made narrative. Concussion has already led to the creation of a foundation named after Dr. Omalu with the goal of advancing the research and treatment of chronic traumatic ence­phalopathy.

In a statement to CNN, the NFL claimed that the league “has made numerous changes to the game to enhance the health and safety of players at all levels of football. These include nearly 40 rule changes in the last decade, strict concussion protocols, and better training and sideline medical care. The game continues to change, and the safety of our players remains our highest priority.”

The ongoing debate about football players’ safety has come to the forefront of many fans’ minds. Hopefully Concussion sheds more light on the issue for further speculation. It takes a safe and smart approach to spark further discussion on such a serious matter: better regulations that ensure players’ safety.

Marina Watts is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].