You’ve probably heard about the new film “Concussion” by now.
In case you haven’t, it’s based on a GQ Magazine expose from 2009 called “Game Brain,” which shed a harsh light on concussions in football through the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who took on the NFL when it tried to suppress his findings.
The movie profiles Omalu during his discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.). It began with an autopsy after the troubling death of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster from a heart attack and, after finding the same symptoms in Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Andre Waters, it became the NFL’s worst nightmare.
It’s packaged in a very moving two hours of film, using the emotional tale that swirled in the background of this saga to paint a picture of the inner struggle Omalu, played by Will Smith, faced as a Nigerian immigrant who was constantly being dismissed in America.
But the majority of the response to the movie comes from the damning information regarding the NFL, football and C.T.E., which is caused by repeated head trauma and manifests in symptoms of depression, suicidality, anxiety, memory loss, aggressive, hostile behavior and, in some cases, a disturbance of motor skills.
Like most films based on true stories, the transfer to the silver screen comes with a brush of embellishment. Still, even with the carefully crafted delivery of it stripped away, the information we’re given is undeniable.
While discussing Webster’s brain with two neurologists, Omalu explains that the human brain suffers from concussion symptoms at a gravitational force of 60, and that the average collision in football is 100 Gs. From the youth level, all the way through an 18-year career, Omalu estimates that Webster suffered 17,000 blows to the head at that elevated force.
This scene leaves a lingering impression that hangs for a few minutes. It’s almost like feeling the gravitational force of a troubling illumination.
“Concussion” will not break the NFL shield, though.
Football is America’s pastime. Our lives revolve around it. We go to the earliest service at church on Sunday just so we can make it home in time for kickoff. For someone like me who grew up in the South, some of my best memories in college revolved around football games. In God’s Country, football is first.
We’re not going to stop indulging in our favorite sport. We smoke cigars and cigarettes knowing they cause cancer. We drink alcohol knowing it will destroy our liver. We eat certain foods knowing they aren’t good for us. Ignoring truths is the American way.
Fantasy football has grown into an obsessive monstrosity that dominates water cooler conversations. Every Sunday, we sit and stare at the Red Zone Channel for all seven hours, anxiously waiting that rush that comes from watching our fantasy players make plays in reality. If you can go 30 minutes on without checking your matchup, you’ve exercised a level of discipline few men can.
“Concussion” provides the proper contrast for Omalu’s work, showing the beauty of the game with its glory and its camaraderie. Even his wife, a Kenyan immigrant, jumps out of her seat after an electrifying play. Football unites men for a common goal in a way few things can.
It runs so deep in our society in so many ways that I won’t even try to extrapolate them for the sake of forgetting an extension of it.
We will, however, think twice before letting young people play football in the future. Many will undoubtedly say, “No.”
Awareness during games will be higher. Parents will perk up when helmets clash and players are slow to get up — even more than they do now. Injuries and attention on the sideline will face scrutiny. “Are they doing what’s best for my son or for the scoreboard?”
This version of football won’t last. Even though special teams can change the dynamic of a game — something we’ve seen time and time again at all levels — I expect kickoffs and punts to be completely removed in the not-so-distant future. There will be a movement to reduce the number of high-velocity, high-impact plays.
Hopefully the game itself will adapt further. We’ve already seen a shift toward spread offenses where quarterbacks work out of shotgun formations. Running games have become an afterthought. The NFL is now a passing league and the superstars are its wide receivers.
The next wave of evolution will be the early fundamentals coaches teach their players.
Go down when a tackle is imminent. Don’t leave your receivers on an island. If a defender reads the screen, just throw the ball away. There’s no point lowering your shoulder as you run out-of-bounds.
The safety measures that have become standard practice at the professional level will eventually trickle down to college, high school, and hopefully youth programs.
The Northern California chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame announced earlier this month that it was partnering with the UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco to establish a concussion screening program for high school teams. Hopefully that will make its way to Napa Valley soon.
I encourage you to go watch “Concussion” with your sons and have an open discussion about it. This movie has brought the conversation to us in a way we can properly digest it.
We are gifted with hindsight and endless information that generations before never had. There’s no question the technology behind helmets and pads is significantly better now and will continue to improve.
As more players donate their brains for research, we could see more proactive, preventative measures take place to help the game evolve. Who knows, we may even see a cure one day.
Concussions and C.T.E. are the sad reality of today, but with this knowledge and ever-increasing awareness, I’m optimistic about football’s future.