The NFL is not going to like Christmas Day this year.
At least not the part of the holiday that involves millons of movie-goers -- likely football fans in some form -- that will go to theaters to watch Will Smith’s feature film “Concussion” that opens in theaters nationwide Dec. 25.
It’s anything but fiction. It’s undeniably, soberingly real.
I viewed it Tuesday in Seattle in an advanced screening. As someone who grew up in the shadow of the “Concussion’s” setting, Pittsburgh, and during the era from which the evidence in the film’s true story is based, it was absolutely amazing. Unbelievable -- yet chillingly true.
Above all, the film is a withering indictment of the NFL for covering up the effects its product is now scientifically proven to have on the brain of many of its players. It’s also an indictment of the entire sport, for even being played. By anyone.
“Concussion” was the latest reminder how scary, in retrospect, it is that I played football at all through at least one, documented concussion (I returned to play seven days later) in very much a Tom Cruise, “All the Right Moves” setting in the Steel Valley. I grew up 40 minutes west of Pittsburgh during the 1980s.
The film’s story takes off when Pittsburgh pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, whom Smith plays in the film, works on the damaged brain of Mike Webster, the deceased former Steelers Hall of Fame center. PBS called it “the autopsy that changed football.” Dr. Omalu subsequently began uncovering how prevalent the disease he discovered in the 50-year-old Webster, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), is in dead former NFL players.
It’s a disease that threatens to change the league. In some ways, it already has.
Webster died in 2007 of a heart attack after he reportedly at times lived out of his car. As “Concussion” chronicles, several former NFL stars suffered similar, tragic deaths after Webster, among them Dave Duerson, Terry Long, Andre Waters and Junior Seau.
Another former Steelers’ lineman, Justin Strzelczyk, drove himself to a fiery death down the wrong side of a freeway in 2004. He was 36.
All their brains were found after their deaths to have CTE.
A Boston University study earlier this year found that 87 of 91 former NFL players had the disease. The “Concussion” film describes CTE’s effects as suffocating the brain, potentially causing uncontrolled irrationability and rage and rendering the diseased unrecognizable to their loved ones and themselves.
The film details how the NFL ignored, dismissed and sought to discredit Dr. Omalu after his discovery of CTE in football players. It portrays the league’s concussion studies, committees and hearings as shams. It details how the league’s former head of its research committee on concussions, Dr. Elliot Perlman, had no expertise in brain function and was in fact a rheumatologist.
The man who headed the NFL’s official stance on brain injuries was a specialist in arthritis.
In “Concussion,” and in the accounts and studies upon which the film is based, the league comes off as ignoring the issue of brain damage in the interests of keeping its runaway economic freight train rolling to the tune of at least $7 billion in annual revenue last year.
When the film’s trailer was released the league issued this statement: “We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority. We all know more about this issue than we did 10 or 20 years ago. As we continue to learn more, we apply those learnings to make our game and players safer.”
In April the NFL settled a lawsuit with its retired players over concussion-related injuries worth $1 billion, to settle injury claims. The settlement is under appeal because it provides far less money for those suspected (from the settlement date and beyond) of having had CTE, which currently can only be found through an autopsy. “Concussion” points out in the final scene the settlement excludes the league from disclosing what it has known about the effects of its game on brains, and when the NFL first knew it.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, which is behind “Concussion,” actually softened the film from its original form so as to not run any more afoul of the NFL than this film already does.
As I sat watching the stunning, 2-hour and 3-minute story the big screen Tuesday, I kept thinking: If this is the watered-down version, how bad is the “real,” real story behind brain injuries, football and the quality of life after playing it?