Your Brain on Football: Concussion

By Pamela Zoslov

The most popular sport in the U.S is not football, basketball or baseball — it’s denial. In a landscape dominated by big business, Americans have been told that cigarettes don’t cause cancer, that meat is good for you, that guns don’t kill people, and other lies that serve the interests of money.

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Will Smith in “Concussion.”

One such lie is that football does not cause severe brain injuries, the kind that have led to depression, rage, dementia and suicide among former players.

On a February day in 2011, former Chicago Bears defensive lineman Dave Duerson sent text messages to his family members requesting that his brain tissue be examined for signs of chronic traumatic encepalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by multiple concussions. Then Duerson, 50, shot himself fatally in the chest.

His suicide was one of many by former NFL players – former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, 43, and Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, 62, all of whose brains showed signs of CTE. The syndrome was identified in 2002 and first made headlines back in 2007, after the suicide of former Philadelphia Eagles player Andre Waters.

Despite the rising body count, the NFL for years denied any link between football and brain damage. Duerson was the first to specifically request that his brain be studied to shed light on the condition afflicting the league’s players.

The battle between the NFL and medical science is the unsexy but vital subject of Concussion, a drama based on Jeanne Marie Laskas’ article in GQ, “Game Brain.” Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist whodiscovered chronic traumatic encepalopathy (CTE) and found himself combating the NFL, the medical establishment and the football-loving American public.

The film introduces Dr. Omalu in a courtroom in 2002, testifying as an expert witness in a murder trial. Asked for his credentials, Omalu recites a litany of eight advanced degrees, including one in music. A coroner in Pittsburgh, he’s a deeply spiritual man who talks to the corpses that show up on his autopsy table. “Rachel, I need your help.” Lest the viewer think the film has exaggerated the doctor’s estimable qualities, the real Dr. Omalu really is all that.

Omalu is tasked with the autopsy of Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steelers center who died at 50 of undisclosed causes. David Morse, almost unrecognizable in heavy makeup, plays the severely troubled Webster in his final days, sleeping in his car and engaging in bizarre self-mutilating behavior (pulling out his own teeth and super-gluing them back in, drinking antifreeze, administering electric shocks to his body).

Omalu is not a football fan, and knows nothing about “Iron Mike” Webster or the sport that is the lifeblood of his adopted hometown. This gives him the needed scientific objectivity, but also makes him a target when his discoveries threaten the country’s sacred sport. “Do you want to pussify this country?” he is asked by one enraged fan. A child approaches him and asks, “Mister, why do you hate football?”

In a PBS Frontline interview, the real Dr. Omalu said, “Back then I didn’t know about football. I didn’t even know what a quarterback was. I didn’t know about line of scrimmage.”

The Webster case perplexes Omalu. The ex-player, once a man slow to anger, had become explosive, violent and moody. Scans of Webster’s brain while he was alive showed no signs of Alzheimer’s or other brain disease. Determined to find the cause of his severe personality change, Omalu conducts further tissue tests, at his own expense, and discovers that Webster’s brain (as well as those of several other gridiron veterans) is filled with tangles of protein attributable to the thousands of head collisions experienced during a long football career. In the movie, Omalu shakes a peach in a jar of water to demonstrate that the human brain is loose; it’s not designed, like that of a ram, to withstand repeated head trauma.

Omalu’s lonely battle is aided by Prima (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the pretty, soft-spoken African immigrant who boards with him and later becomes his wife. A nurse in her home country and a fan of American football, Prima assists Omalu in his research and helps him understand the brutal, balletic beauty of the sport.

After Omalu publishes his paper in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005, co-authored by his mentor, Dr. Cryril Wecht (a bald-capped Albert Brooks), and other medical colleagues, the NFL amasses its considerable forces to discredit him and his colleagues. They call for him to retract the paper. Omalu partners with neurosurgeon Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) to present the research at a league-wide concussion summit; the NFL, now headed by Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) dismiss the findings. Dr. Wecht is indicted on trumped-up federal fraud charges (later dropped); the pregnant Mrs. Omalu is followed in her car by sinister men.

Omalu, who naïvely expected the NFL to welcome his findings, reflects, “I am the wrong person to have discovered this.” His wife reminds him that his surname means in translation “If you know, you must come forward.” She says, “Nothing created by man can bring you down.”

This earnest and very linear film movingly dramatizes the human cost of the NFL’s denial. Mike Webster, Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Justin Strzelczyk (played by retired NFL player Matthew Willig) are shown in their desperate, terrible final days. Strzelczyk rages violently at his wife, threatening to kill her and terrorizing their children. After his death, she speaks for other survivors of by saying if she had only known what caused him to change, she could have tried to help him.

Director Peter Landesman is a former investigative journalist. He wrote the screenplay for Kill the Messenger, about journalist Gary Webb’s exposé of links between the CIA and the importing of crack cocaine into American inner cities to finance Latin American military coups. He also directed Parkland, about the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination. Powerful institutions don’t intimidate him, and he’s not afraid to tackle the NFL. “I gravitate toward stories of David versus Goliath, the small man versus the machine,” he told Peter King of Sports Illustrated.

The movie, starring one of the world’s most popular film actors, is bound to darken Roger Goodell’s Christmas. As for its potential impact (as it were) on football, Landesman says it’s an issue of informed consent. “Once you have the information — and the information has been obscured for a long time, it’s been buried and covered up by people who don’t want to damage the sport — the information is now out there, and I hope this movie brings together the information in a way that the general public can metabolize and now make their own decisions.” Parents can decide whether to let their kids play high school and college football, and those contemplating a pro career can know more about the occupational hazards. Says the filmmaker, “It’s about making adult choices.”

The NFL didn’t publicly acknowledge the link between concussions caused by football and CTE until 2009, seven years after Omalu’s discovery and after decades of denying the evidence. The league has agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit by 5,000 retired players who accused it of deliberately concealing the dangers of concussions. For the NFL, the sum is, in the words of journalist Dave Zirin, “a pittance. Zirin wrote in The Nation:

If this was Goldman Sachs, people would be picking up pitchforks and torches right now. If this was Goldman Sachs, Occupy Wall  Street would be a pebble in the pond compared to the anger that would erupt. But it’s the National  Football League. It is too big to fail not only because it generates so much cash, but because so much psychological baggage about Americana, manhood and civic pride are inextricably tied with it. The NFL will get away with this because the public wants the NFL to get away with it more than they want the truth.

Grade: B

 

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