Med City Movie Guy: Does 'Concussion' deliver a blow to future of football?

Will Smith is trailblazing neuropathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu in Columbia Pictures' "Concussion."

Let's work from this premise: You go to hockey games for the fightsand watch NASCAR for the crashes. The element of danger is what separates popular spectator sports from, say, competitive ship-in-a-bottle building.

That's OK. Participating in certain games implies consent to the consequences. Lawyers call it an assumption of risk which means, for instance, Oberlin College athletes can sue because their feelings were hurt, but not because they pulled something stretching for the shuttlecock.

Ahh, but as a Shakespearean massage parlor might advertise, "Herein lies the rub."

"(The football player) knows the physical risks," Will Smithas Nigerian doctor Bennett Omalusays in the medical drama " Concussion,""but he does not know he can lose his mind."

That's because, except for the NFL, whom the film alleges knew, no one else had made the correlation between latent debilitating brain trauma and repetitive head injuries until Omalu autopsied Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who at 50 suffered dementia and mysteriously died.


It was Omalu's style to understand not just "how" someone died but "why" they died, which sent the neuropathologist on a personally-funded research expedition that pits him not just against one of the most powerful institutions in America, but its fans as well.

What Omalu coined, what CTs could not detect, was Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, something studied as far back as the 1920s, then in boxers as "dementia pugilistica."

" God did not intend for us to play football," he says to a colleague, citing the absence of a cushion around our brains that, for example, woodpeckers have.

No one is more protective of their brand than the NFL. "They own a day of the week," his boss ( Albert Brooks) points out as Omalu deliberates defending himself against their attempts to discredit him.

But as time presses on and more former NFLers die before their time, it becomes an issue harder to ignore, especially when it gets the attention of a former team doctor ( Alec Baldwin) with a conscience.

Though the film sounds dry, writer/director Peter Landesmandoes a good job normalizing the jargon and interweaving Omalu's efforts with threads of ever more suffering players.

As for Smith, he seems comfortable with Omalu's accent and overall delivers a mature and dignified performancein a film that's surprisingly suspenseful.

Because of Omalu, the NFL has vowed improvements — though I suspect most of the movie-going parents will do what they can to constrict the future pipeline from which new players can be drawn. That might be the only solution to an inherently and historically dangerous sport.


4 Honks

"Concussion" is a hard-hitting (ouch!) expose, but Hollywood has given other ailments the big-screen treatment, too, raising awareness while selling tickets. Screen two of these and email about my impudence in the morning:

"Philadelphia" (1993) AIDS was still only whispered about when Denzel Washington defended Tom Hanks who claimed job discrimination because of the disease. Hanks won, and won an Oscar, but Denzel became immortal with, "Tell it to me like I’m 5." From "Silence of the Lambs" director Jonathan Demme.

"Pride of the Yankees" (1942) A sports classic. Babe Ruth has a cameo but Gary Cooper stars as legendary Yankee Lou Gehrig who died at 37 of then-vague Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis which afterward became more commonly known as "Lou Gehrig’s disease."

"Mask" (1985) Peter Bogdanovich directed this biopic of the short life of Rocky Dennis, who suffered from (or, more accurately, "coped with") lionitis, a cranial deformity that instead of making him a pariah endeared him to family and friends. One of Cher’s best performances.

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