Will Smith goes, deftly, from action to Concussion

Alan TruexWe’re accustomed to Will Smith as an action hero, not as a coroner speaking in the accent of Hakeem Olajuwon.  But in the very nonChristmasy movie Concussion, Smith plays a Nigerian-born pathologist, Bennet Omalu, who was the pioneer in the study of traumatic – or not — brain injuries to football players.

In the 1970s concussions were known to bring long-term health risk to football players.  Roger Staubach retired a bit prematurely, for a Hall of Fame quarterback, at 37, because he had suffered several concussions.

Staubach at 73 seems to have lost little of his mental acuity, but some of his contemporaries have fared not nearly as well.  Dr. Omalu performed the autopsy on Pittsburgh’s Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who committed suicide at 50 after battling what he himself described as “madness” that included pulling out his teeth and reattaching them with super-glue.

Omalu saw no evidence in CAT scans that Webster had any abnormality.  So he spent $20.000 of his own money for microscopic study of the athlete’s brain tissue.  With that he discovered bruising of the brain tissue that would explain the derangement.

Omalu went on to study more dead football brains, and he kept finding more bruising.  As evidence mounted of brain injuries to NFL players, litigation inevitably developed.  The NFL agreed to pay almost $1 billion in damages for concussions.

The league estimated that 30 percent of its players will suffer brain damage, but Omalu claims his studies put the likely percentage at 92. 

This is, of course, an alarming difference.  Omalu told Time magazine: “I have not examined any brain of a retired football player that came back negative.”

There are other professions besides football player that are unhealthy but perhaps necessary, such as soldiering and firefighting.  But the NFL is worried that the public will flee an entertainment vehicle that damages the brains of the majority of its participants.

In the movie we see an NFL executive lamenting: “If ten percent of mothers in this country begin to see football as a dangerous sport, that’s the end of football.”

I see that as an exaggeration.  Even if 20 percent of American mothers won’t allow their sons to play football, there will still be enough qualified athletes to fill the rosters of the NFL and the 128 teams in the college football farm system.

But we’re already seeing a 10 percent decline in Pop Warner participation during the past several years, and that is a troubling trend.  Smith’s movie isn’t likely to allay fears with footage of two youths colliding with concussion-producing force.

That may be the most disturbing segment of the film, the second-most disturbing being scenes of NFL players in the 1990s being knocked dizzy, while the TV announcers chuckle about how funny they looked when their “bell was rung.”

It wasn’t that long ago that a player who was bashed in the head would sit on the bench while the team’s trainer wagged a finger or two in front of his eyes and asked “How many?” 

If he could tell one finger from two, he was deemed healed from concussion.

The movie points an accusatory finger at Commissioner Roger Goodell and his predecessor Paul Tagliabue, whose law firm represented Big Tobacco in its counterclaims that cigarettes are not harmful to health.

Goodell’s NFL did everything possible to discredit Omalu, which wasn’t easy, since he’s accumulated eight advanced degrees, in Africa as well as Europe and the U.S.

But prodded by litigation if not an awakening conscience, Goodell does seem to be taking head trauma seriously, even as he understates its effects.

He has indeed made the sport safer by tightening up on personal fouls, reducing the amount of contact scrimmaging and levying heavy fines and substantial suspensions for skull-banging violence.

No doubt efforts will continue to make football safer.

Colleges are helping with creative approaches to reducing the incidents of head trauma.  By engaging in a 5-minute helmetless tackling drill twice a week in preseason and once a week during the season,, the University of New Hampshire football team saw a 30 percent reduction in concussions, according to the Journal of Athletic Training. 

That’s a counterintuitive finding, but it’s supported by the fact that rugby players, who wear no headgear, rarely suffer concussions.  Without their helmets, players are more committed to keeping their heads from collision.

College football players typically sustain 1,000 impacts in a season.  Most of these hits are not the dramatic ones that elicit laughs or groans but the routine ones that occur at every snap of the ball.

The movie presents the theory that players in the interior offensive line – especially the center—are most exposed to these repetitive head impacts.  It wasn’t that Mike Webster was knocked out two or three times, it was just that his brain was rattled thousands of times, the brain suffering an accumulation of bruises.

Omalu is campaigning to eliminate organized football before high school, on grounds that 10-13-year-olds are not mature enough to make a decision that could lead to devastating health problems.  He even suggests that high school is too soon to be banging heads, pointing out that the brain is not fully developed at 17.

Omalu admits that what he’s studying is “not an absolute science.”  Which will give the NFL and its millions of fans wiggle room to say the science is in doubt.   We tend to believe what we want to believe and dispute the facts that indicate otherwise.

But the fact that Concussion is well acted by Will Smith and his supporting cast means that it will leave some indelible images.  It’s having significant national buzz in its first week of viewing.  It’s featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

If there’s any good news for Goodell, it’s that the theaters showing Concussion were about half as full as those with the seventh episode of Star Wars.  Perhaps The Force is still with the NFL.

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