Movie Review - Concussion

Amy Vogel-Eyny, Doctoral Candidate and
2015 ANCDS Student Fellow
Graduate Center, City University of New York
Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences

A crisis of our time: the tragic downfall of one of America’s most beloved warriors, the professional football player, is at the very heart of the new release Concussion by Peter Landesman.  Based on a true story, the film calls our societal values into question by asking whether our craving for the brutal, head-to-head sport obscures our ability to understand if there are potentially ravishing long-term effects of the game on the brains of its players. 

The film is centered on the “outsider” Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a Nigerian-born doctor with numerous academic degrees attesting to his intellectual merit, who is devoted to the ideal of the American-- of holding one’s self to only the highest of standards. In 2002, Omalu is working as a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh and is slated to perform an autopsy on the local legend Mike Webster, the former star Steeler’s center and Hall-of-Famer. Testifying to his lack of knowledge of the nation’s favorite pastime, Webster is entirely unknown to Omalu. The 50-year-old football hero’s body displays signs of self-mutilation: teeth that had fallen out were super glued back into his gums, and his legs are badly bruised from repetitive tazing (a technique Webster devised to find solace in sleep from the chronic pain he experienced and voices in his head).   In his position as outsider, Omalu recognizes incongruities between words and actions that other characters intentionally or unintentionally fail to see.  Observing the state of Webster’s body, the doctor asks of his Steelers-revering-colleagues, if the football star was so esteemed and cherished by the Pittsburgh community then why was Webster living out of his car?

When examining the brain, Omalu anticipated finding damage that would explain Webster’s mental decline and was puzzled when he instead found that the brain appeared normal.  Omalu’s pursuit to know why Mike Webster died sets him back tens of thousands of dollars when he decides to independently finance the fixing, sectioning, and staining of Webster’s brain.  What he experiences upon viewing the brain slides is a revelation, the truth of which will embroil the scientific community and the National Football League (NFL) in a conflict that extends beyond the movie itself and into the present day.  Webster’s brain reveals abnormal tau protein deposits that Omalu suggests are strangling his mind.  The cause of this tau accumulation is attributed to the physicality required of the sport -- a sport wherein, play after play, its members regularly crash their heads and bodies into one another with substantial force, leading to head trauma, such as concussions, and even temporary loss of consciousness.  In most situations, the skull is a formidable protective force against brain injury, but when there is a blow to the head the brain will hit against the inside of the skull causing focal and or widespread tissue damage that can last hours and sometimes days after the initial impact.  This damage may not be visible through neuroimaging techniques, which was the case with Mike Webster, whose CT scan was normal just six months before his death.

 Omalu names the disease he observed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and proceeds to publish his findings in Neurosurgery in 2005, the first study of its kind on an American football player.  The gauntlet is thrown: did football contribute to Mike Webster’s decline?

The NFL has a lot at stake.  We are told by Dr. Joseph Maroon, the neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a heated meeting with Omalu that if even 10% of mothers begin to fear that football might be dangerous to their children’s health then that would be the end of the NFL. Major media outlets are picking up Omalu’s findings as there are additional confirmed cases of CTE in other NFL players, such as Andre Waters and Dave Duerson; the latter of whom shot himself in the heart with the express intention of having his brain donated to science for further research. In response to this perceived threat, the NFL goes on a smear campaign against the doctor, targeting his credibility as a medical professional and researcher.  In trying to paint the NFL as sufficiently evil, a good portion of the film revolves around the devastating impact of this research on Omalu and his family and friends as a result of the NFLs scare tactics. 

If the fact that there are relatively young people dying from repetitive brain trauma as a result of a popular sport is not alarming enough, what comes to light in this battle between one of the largest professional sports leagues in America and Dr. Omalu is that the NFL had apparently known about the concussion crisis (as it’s referred to both in the film and the media) for many years, before Omalu ever met Mike Webster.  Dr. Elliot Pellman is a rheumatologist educated in Guadalajara, Mexico who is poorly qualified to head the leagues Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (irony of ironies given the NFL's discrediting of Omalu as being a quack doctor).  The scientific work coming out of this committee centers on claiming that concussions are not problematic in the NFL, and guidelines derived from this research even allow for concussed players to be sent back into a game.  The formation of this committee allows the NFL to control, to some extent, public knowledge about the effects of concussions on the health of its players by funding research that is contrary to that being presented by Omalu’s group.  These antithetical forces allow the question of whether football is involved in the deaths of men like Mike Webster to remain equivocal -- a deliberate putting off of a final reckoning. 

The events unfolding so far might be all too familiar to some, harkening back to the ‘90s when U.S. tobacco companies were testifying before Congress about the risk factors of tobacco on health.  The movie’s closing lingers on this parallel between the NFL and big tobacco.  We learn that in 2011 the football league was sued by 5,000 of its former players and that the NFL settled on the condition that they were not required to release what they knew about football and brain damage among its players and when they knew it. 

The film has utility in providing a framework for understanding CTE, and could be an accessible instructional tool for introducing students to the concept of traumatic brain injury. Perhaps the greatest contribution of this film, however, is to the national dialogue, opening space for a debate to be had about the ethical obligation, if any, of the NFL and the scientific community to address the issue of brain damage in sports.  Given the film’s widespread distribution and that the story is still developing, the concussion crisis now has the opportunity to unfold in the public eye.  

 

References

Scott, R., Scott, G., Woltroff, D., Shuman, L., & Cantillon, E. (Producers), Landesman, P. (Director). 2015. Concussion [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.