Concussion, starring Will Smith and Alec Baldwin, gives us a glimpse into the life and work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born forensic neuropathologist, whose research into a condition called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) will make you think twice about how much you enjoy your Sunday NFL football game. It’s all about awareness.
A Man of Integrity
At the beginning of the film, Omalu (Smith) is a humble medical examiner in Pittsburg. He does his job quietly and is respected by his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Al Brooks). He goes to the Catholic Church on Sunday where the pastor asks him to board a recent Kenyan immigrant, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and he opens his home to her and eventually marries her. He speaks respectfully to the dearly departed before he performs his autopsies asking them what they have to tell him about how they died, although this behavior causes some raised eyebrows from his colleagues. He embodies integrity.
When former Pittsburg Steeler, Mike Webster (David Morse) shows up on his autopsy table, Dr. Omalu is baffled as to why this man, at age 50, died of a heart attack. It shouldn’t happen in someone so young who seemed to, otherwise, be in good health. He finds out that Webster had been living out of a truck at a train yard, suffering from dementia and depression. Questioning the reasons behind Webster’s death, Omalu asks that tests be done on his brain. When the coroner’s office refuses such an expensive test, Omalu pays for the test himself. What he discovers makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Omalu calls it CTE.
Tell the Truth
His conclusion that Webster died because of brain damage caused by the repeated blows to the head suffered while playing football, made Omalu a pariah but he never backs down in his efforts to talk to the NFL. Omalu publishes his findings and the NFL refuses to listen. But when the pattern continues with the deaths of other former NFL players, Omalu, together with an NFL insider doctor who can no longer ignore Omalu’s research (Alec Baldwin), challenges Dr. Joseph Maroon (Arliss Howard), a bigwig NFL doctor, to stand up to the multi-billion dollar industry and tell the truth. People are dying because they play football.
Will Smith shows his ability to capture an audience with his powerful portrayal of an ordinary man following his conscience. The responsibility Omalu feels to show the NFL and all of America just how dangerous football can be is written in Smith’s expressions. There is one particularly poignant scene when Omalu drives by a high school where the students are engaged in football practice. The agony on Smith’s face conveys the sadness in Omalu’s heart that this beloved sport has the potential to kill.
The Gift of Knowing
Years later when the NFL finally allows Omalu to address the player’s association, Omalu sets before the players all the information they need to make informed decisions about the consequences of playing football on their brains. He says soldiers know that, in the line of duty, they may be injured or killed. They know and still choose to do it. But football players? They know they could break an arm or a leg playing football. But die? Death is not an expected outcome of playing football. Up to that time nobody had listened when Omalu said that death caused by brain damage was a possible byproduct of playing football. Now they know.
I’ve never really been a football fan although my fellow nuns have sometimes teased me about my love of hockey saying how violent a sport it is. After seeing Concussion, I beg to differ. Someone asked me what I thought about the kind of impact this movie might have. With the popularity of football in America, I can’t see that the NFL will just up and quit. After all, Dr. Omalu’s research has been going on for over a decade now and the NFL is still going strong and players are still getting bashed in the head. What I do hope the film will accomplish is greater awareness and research into how to make football safer for the players.
For football fans, including some of my own family members and friends, I hope they become more aware of how much football is about making money. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. What amount of money can compare with a person’s life and well-being and that of their families? The post script of Concussion says that 28% of NFL players will suffer from some kind of permanent brain damage as a result of the years of accumulated head trauma. To me, that’s just wrong. While I know that football will continue to exist, I think I’ll suggest to my brother that when my nephew is old enough to play sports that he be encouraged to play soccer, baseball, or hockey. Just not football.