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An Unpleasant Football Reality: Concussion

Updated on January 9, 2016
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Few sports avail their athletes the opportunity to spend their lives playing the game at which they excel. This is especially true in the National Football League, where the average playing career lasts less than five seasons, and any serious injury can derail a career. The injuries, though, often don't show their full effects until the player has retired. A Pennsylvania forensic pathologist starts an investigation when a former football star arrives in the Allegheny County morgue in Concussion. Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, who gets the task of performing the 2002 autopsy of Mike Webster (David Morse), a star of the Pittsburgh Steelers who lived in his truck and died at the age of 50. When he wants to investigate further, Omalu immediately meets opposition from fellow coroner Daniel Sullivan (Mike O'Malley), a big Steelers fan. With permission from supervisor Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu pays for tests on Webster's brain tissue, he finds abnormalities there, and believes the abnormalities are the result of repeated blows to the head on the field. He consults with Wecht and others about his findings, and publishes a paper on the disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE for short. The NFL does not accept the findings, and has an adviser of their own in Dr. Elliot Pellman (Paul Reiser). Meanwhile, other retired Steelers and other former players die, often at their own hand, and are discovered to have had CTE symptoms.

The findings make Omalu unpopular, and lead to criticism and death threats. Meanwhile, the doctor, at the request of his pastor, has opened his home to Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a nurse who, like Bennet, immigrated to America from Africa. She supports the work of Bennet, and provides a respite from the detractors. Eventually, they marry, and make plans for their future. Another big supporter of Dr. Omalu, besides Dr. Wecht, is Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who treated Webster during his Steelers days, as well as in the center's final years. He knows the NFL, and tells Dr. Omalu the league will do anything to protect the shield and its billions in annual revenue. When other doctors start to concur with Omalu's findings, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) wants to hear what he learned - but not from the doctor himself. Dr. Bailes has to present the findings. After that symposium, the FBI levels charges of fraud against Dr. Wecht, and sends Dr. Omalu on a job search.

Concussion, based on an article by Jeanne Marie Laskas, is an insightful look at the sport and its approach to business from scenarist-director Peter Landesman. The league knows that Dr. Omalu's findings could be very detrimental to a league that had already been dismissive to injury claims of retired players. The league aggressively protects its business interests when Omalu insists on making his case. Omalu has a disadvantage not only as an outsider, but also as a man who doesn't even care about the violence in the game he criticizes. He wants every death to tell a story, and not just be a statistic. His quest to learn the truth runs counter to a business that continues to grow a fan base worldwide. The movie, while not revealing in nature to those familiar with the game, gives viewers and football fans points to ponder as the damage from years of contact takes its toll on many. The opening sequences with Webster and fellow sufferer Justin Strelczyk (Matthew Willig) show two men slowly losing control, and being unable to stop themselves. They lost loved ones who don't even know the people they've become. While most players will go through their lives without brain damage, Landesman shows too many grow unproductive and disconnected when the game is done with them.

Smith gives one of his best performances as Dr. Omalu, who has as much of a passion about life as he does about death. His exam table is no less professionally run than any other pathology table, but he treats the autopsy as a life learning experience for him. When he discovers what was happening in Mike Webster's final years, Omalu takes the time to research the game Webster played for many years. The scrutiny over Webster and others changes his medical behavior to a more somber tone, but the scrutiny doesn't change his determination or his research, as he learns the specialty of Dr. Pellman as he stands against a sport that seems uninterested in the cumulative effects of head contact. Also exceptional in support is Brooks as Dr. Wecht, who trusts Dr. Omalu to be thorough, even if the thoroughness resorts in adverse attention for both of them. I especially like the dark humor he displays as he makes the FBI let him tell Dr. Omalu about the charges levelled against Dr. Wecht. Mbatha-Raw and Baldwin also deliver noteworthy performances as a wife and a colleague who help Bennet stay the course and defend his findings. Morse gives a heartbreaking performance as Webster, a gridiron hero who found increasingly hard times once his playing days concluded. Other now-deceased football figures portrayed in this film include Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje) and Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones).

I'm one of those guys who likes spending autumn and winter Sundays watching hard-fought and exciting games on the gridiron. While I've never attended a pro game in person, I did enjoy watching my high school alma mater play when I was there, and then watch my nephew play the game for his high school when he was there. Concussion shows a more serious side to an admittedly rough game. When men are told to leave it all out on the field, some leave a lot more than they ever realize. Recent news reports have stated that the late Hall Of Famer Frank Gifford, who had a long run in the broadcast booth following his NFL career, showed signs of CTE, which can be diagnosed only after death. I have worried about the long-term effects of playing in the sport, and I always wish the teams would act in the best health interests of their players. I know that doesn't always happen, but Concussion should make viewers wonder how much safer anyone can make this game I and so many others enjoy. The movie also makes me wonder if Matt Willig, who played fourteen seasons in the NFL, might one day become the sort of man he portrayed onscreen. Injuries are a part of any sport, but an athlete ought to be able to leave this life with his memories and his sanity. Concussion shows that is too often not the case.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Concussion 3.5 stars. Take one for the team?

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      Pat Mills 10 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      Thanks. I wonder in the case of OJ if he behaved influenced by CTE, or if e-g-0 has played a factor. I saw parts of ESPN's Simpson documentary, and he never has been a humble man. In either case, I'd like to see this man get his act together.

    • Solaras profile image

      Solaras 10 months ago

      Great review. CTE is being suspected in O J Simpson's outrageous behavior too.

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      Pat Mills 19 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      Thanks Mel. Seau is mentioned briefly late in the film. The concussion aspect bothers me, but at this point, a lot of former players still can live a productive life. As long as Goodell makes the owners money, the league will make little more than a token effort to care for the active players that make the game a multi-billion dollar industry. They probably won't care until their finances are affected.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Another great review. Our beloved Charger Junior Seau took his life after suffering the effects of concussion. It is a brutal game, and even though I have been a big fan, mostly I am over it and I really think I could do without it, especially jaded as I am with the Chargers moving to LA. The NFL billionaires don't love their fans, obviously, and they don't love their players either after they use themselves up and are forced out of the game.