The man who first brought Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) to national awareness is the subject of Will Smith’s latest biopic and sports drama ‘Concussion.’ As a long-time San Diego Chargers fan, CTE hit particularly close to my heart in 2012 when it claimed Hall-of-Famer and former Linebacker Junior Seau, one of the best at his position. The risks of long term brain damage undertaken by these gridiron warriors serve as a constant reminder that our collective national addiction to American Football exacts a steep price.
Smith delivered one of his most sympathetic and nuanced performances as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian (now American) forensic pathologist who went to great lengths studying the effects of a sport based on repeated concussions to the head. Alarmed and deeply disturbed by what he discovered after the premature deaths of ex-NFL players including Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Andre Waters, he found a sympathetic ear in Doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former team doctor of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and embarked on a personal crusade to speak for these psychologically tormented former players. In so doing the full wrath of the multi-billion dollar money-making machine of the NFL and fans were brought to bear upon him and his allies, because it wasn’t simply about money and reparations to the players. The future viability of the League and its ability to recruit talent were being threatened.
To the credit of writer/director Peter Landesman, ‘Concussion’ avoided polemics and treaded lightly around the controversial issue of playing football. We are not being asked to consider the risks of letting our kids play football and risk long term brain damage or suicidal tendencies; that is beyond the scope of this movie and not its intent. Unlike the far-reaching effects of its protagonist, which included not only reparations to ex-players and their families but also implementation of the league’s current Concussion Protocol, the movie’s aim is a much more modest one: the humanistic portrayal of one man’s uphill struggle to speak for the few who can’t speak (or at times even think) for themselves.