Jan 4, 2016
Concussion tells the true story of how an unknown Nigerian immigrant doctor discovers that playing football can cause degenerative brain damage. The movie also shows the NFL’s reaction to this discovery, which is similar to big tobacco’s response to the idea that cigarette smoking is hazardous to your health. Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) worked as a forensic pathologist at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2002, and he performed the autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster.
Webster had died suddenly and unexpectedly, following years of struggling with cognitive impairment, destitution, depression, drug abuse and suicide attempts. The movie’s devastating portrayal of this football Hall of Famer, “Iron Mike,” and his downward spiral and death by age 50 shows the real damage. After helping the Steelers win four Super Bowls in the 1970s, he was left literally dazed and confused, living out of his pickup truck. He Super Glued his rotting teeth and tasered himself.
Although Webster’s brain looked normal at autopsy, Omalu wasn’t buying it. He reasoned that someone that crazy had to have something wrong with his brain. So he conducted independent brain tissue analyses, which he paid for out of his own pocket. He suspected Webster suffered from dementia pugilistica, a dementia induced by repeated blows to the head found in boxers – “punch drunk.” Using specialized staining, Omalu found large accumulations of tau protein in Webster’s brain affecting mood, emotions, and executive functions, similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Together with colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, Omalu published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005, titled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.”
Omalu believed NFL doctors would be “pleased” to read it and that his research could be used to “fix the problem.” Wrong. Decidedly not pleased, the NFL began a campaign to discredit Omalu and his research as totally bogus and to intimidate him.
There is a scene in the film where Omalu is demonstrating how the brain becomes damaged playing football. While holding a fluid filled jar containing a brain, he explains that the brain is free floating in fluid inside the human skull. Then he shakes the jar. In that moment, it becomes clear what is meant by G-forces and acceleration. Helmets can’t prevent the brain from sloshing back and forth inside the skull. Omalu argued that Webster’s position as center put him at extra risk by exposing him to repeated blows of 100-g-forces in over 200 professional games.
In 2012, some four thousand former NFL players joined civil lawsuits against the League, seeking damages over the League’s failure to protect players from concussions. On April 22, 2015, a final settlement was reached between the players and the NFL for 75 million dollars for “baseline medical exams” for retired players, 10 million dollars for research and education, and an uncapped amount for retirees “who can demonstrate they suffer from one of several brain conditions covered by the agreement,” with total payments expected to exceed one billion dollars over 65 years.
In September of 2015, the CSTE (Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy) announced that CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) had been identified in 87 of 91 former NFL players, or 96 percent of the sample.
Coming out just weeks before the Super Bowl, Concussion shows the discovery of CTE in football players, the devastating effects of CTE on the players and their families, and the NFL digging in its heels to hold onto its multibillion dollar industry by intimidation and lies. Warning: watching football through the lens of Concussion might forever alter the game experience.