“Concussion”, starring Will Smith, presents the contradiction of professional football. It also presents more than that.
The film opens with a former football star, “Iron Mike” Webster, being inducted into the hall of fame. Already in his acceptance speech, you can sense that he’s not entirely all there. But it gets worse. Much worse, ending in the painful death of Webster. Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Smith, wants to find out why when he examines Iron Mike’s brain. Omalu’s curiosity and integrity lead him down a path he probably never intended to travel. It brings him into direct conflict with the institution that could be compared to the Catholic Church in the medieval ages as far as cultural importance.
The fact of brain damage to football players is now as well known as the Jesus myth, but the back story isn’t. That’s what this movie reveals – how the NFL lied, stalled and did everything in its power to prevent the truth from coming out. And how the dogged determination and integrity of Dr. Omalu overcame it. The movie explicitly compares the NFL to the tobacco industry and its role in trying to prevent the tobacco/cancer link from being revealed. “There are a lot of unknowns… The science isn’t settled… Not all scientists agree…” That sort of line. (An entire book – “Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes and Conway – has been written describing these methods. They are the same ones still being used to this day to try to cast doubt on the fact of human caused global climate disruption.)
The film shows how the players are ultimately drawn into suing the league. Not shown is the fact that that suit was settled for some $765 million, a settlement which was challenged by several players and then thrown out and changed to some $900 million. Even there, they got away cheap. Stanford law professor William B. Gould commented that “I would have expected this settlement to be in the billions of dollars.” Nor are other inadequacies of the settlement shown. One is the very definition of brain damage itself. How to determine if some ex-player is slowing down a little, maybe stumbles a little in his speech, is brain damaged due to football? As lawyers representing some excluded football players explain, the major “flaw in the deal is the lack of payments to players who have symptoms — including mood swings, sleep disorders, vertigo, dizziness and headaches — that affect people who have sustained concussions.
“The settlement includes potential payments to players with full-blown dementia or ‘moderate to severe cognitive impairment,’ but none for players with problems related to postconcussion syndrome.”
And this doesn’t even include the lifetime of pain that many if not most ex-players endure. (This writer once worked with a fellow carpenter who was so grouchy in the mornings that he tried to pick fights. One day, after I expressed sympathy for football players, this fellow carpenter called me aside. He rolled up his pants leg to reveal a humongous scar. “I used to be a defensive back for the Eagles,” he said. “I played for three years and then hurt my knee and never played again. I don’t know if you’ve noticed how I’m in a bad mood in the mornings sometimes. But this still hurts me. Sometimes it hurts so bad I can’t sleep at night.”)
Meanwhile, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has announced that the tens of millions of
dollars that the cities of St. Louis and San Diego are willing to donate to the private, profit-making football teams, and the extremely valuable land the city of Oakland has offered to donate — that this is “unsatisfactory and inadequate”, and that the teams demand even more money for the state of the art stadiums they demand in order to remain in those cities.
But back to the film: One thing it shows is the contradictory nature of professional football. Some of the scenes show the ballet-like grace and choreography of football. A receiver running downfield, a quarterback throwing the ball, and the ball and the receiver intersecting some 40 yards downfield without the receiver breaking stride. A 200+ pound ball carrier jumping and dodging as nimbly as a gymnast. Then there is the brute force and violence. A player running full speed and being stopped short and thrown to the ground just as abruptly as if he’d literally run into a brick wall, his head snapping around as if were on the end of a chain.
There are also some unanswered questions. At one point, Dr. Omalu is offered the position of Surgeon General in Washington DC. He turns it down in favor of taking a job as medical examiner in Lodi, CA (!) One wonders what the back story is to this. Why did he make that choice, what strings were attached to the offer?
As far as the acting, since the film is about one individual, Dr. Bennett Omalu, the presence of Will Smith dominates the movie. I have to admit, I’ve had a long time prejudice against Will Smith based on the days when he starred in the TV series “Fresh Prince of Bel Aire”, which I always felt was a heavy propaganda show and Smith seemed particularly light weight. Maybe it’s that he’s older now and his face has real personality to it, or maybe it’s the subject, but his acting, alone, in “Concussion” makes going to see this movie worthwhile. Will Smith is a serious actor. But the movie is also much more than that.
Usually, Hollywood over does anything it produces. A little violence is never enough; they have to have blood and guts poring out. A subtle laugh isn’t enough; they have to have slapstick “comedy”. Not in this case. It’s a serious film about a serious subject, well scripted and well acted. Definitely worth the price of admission and the time spent watching it.