by Danny Stout
If announced today that 25 per cent of males will experience some level of brain malfunction beginning in early adulthood, nothing short of a frantic public outcry would ensue. While not the case of the general population, former professional football players, will, indeed, experience depression, symptoms of Alzheimers, suicide, and other cerebral maladies. “Concussion,” the new film starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, is a suspense drama where Smith accuses the National Football League (NFL) for suppressing medical evidence about such medical inevitabilities.
Omalu, a forensic pathologist, identifies a pattern of brain trauma among players including Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Andre Waters. With credible coauthors, he publishes a paper in an esteemed medical journal that NFL officials attempt to discredit with all their muscle. “Concussion” is a polemical film, giving the NFL’s position only thin attention. While not placing a bad connotation on polemics, these are fairly new discoveries in a century-old pastime, and NFL President Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) a soulless flat character initially aloof to the mounting evidence against the league, probably deserves a greater voice in the script, and the sinister background music when he appears is over-the-top.
Watching Omalu cogently and passionately lay out his case teaches us both about science and how to present an ethical argument. He uses pictures of birds diving into water to catch fish: “Their skulls withstand 160 g-forces to protect their brains.” Humans, on the other hand can only tolerate 60 g-forces, but collisions on the field are often at the 120 g-force level. Through time, the bombarded brains emit fluids that erode parts of the organ, resulting in traumatic brain disorders.
Not only does Omalu present the facts, but he frames the argument not in a call for a football ban, but simply says, “They (the players) need to know. That’s all I’m saying.” His story is made even more compelling by his drive to honor the dead, a trait taught by his Nigerian culture, and one that shows in his deep devotion to patients.
“Concussion” is an actors’ film. Performances by Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Albert Brooks are first-rate. Much of the movie is dialogue which might disappoint action-fans, but credit writer and director Peter Landesman for riveting discussions that get our attention and keep us interested. The actual film footage of game hits and head-contact provide compelling drama that is at times hard to watch.
Given the popularity of BYU football and number of LDS high school players, the film will surely prompt discussion. Does BYU do everything it can to assure safety for its players? Has the information in this film filtered down to conversations of coaches, players, and parents, at a level where it’s taken seriously? If not, perhaps “Concussion” will ignite this kind of discourse. U.S. adults say they value human life and safety above all else, but are our actions consistent with this claim?