Viewers share a universal reaction when they watch an athlete receive a crushing hit. There is the simultaneous sharp intake of breath, followed by a brief moment of silence and shock, and then the proclamation of “Oh!” or “Ouch!” or even “Oh shit!”
Concussion, directed by Peter Landesman and starring Will Smith, tries to get the viewer to live in this state of shock for two hours as we watch football players repeatedly crash into each other, their skulls knocking against the plastic of the helmets. And for some of the movie, the fear and trepidation is easily felt, but by the end of the film those feelings prove to be fleeting, and instead you’re left with a vague sense of concern and indignation.
Concussion is timely in its delivery because the public has a growing awareness of the dangers of contact sports and brain trauma. But that isn’t the world we see at the beginning of the film. Instead we are taken back to 2002 and introduced to Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Smith, a Nigerian American pathologist working at the medical examiner’s office in Pittsburg.
Smith shines as the endearing and optimistic Omalu, but the story doesn’t truly start until Mike Webster, the former Pittsburg Steelers center, ends up on his autopsy table. Football fans will be familiar with Webster’s fall from grace, but this movie summarizes his tragic ending for newcomers, showing him living in a truck in an abandoned field where he’s huffing turpentine, super gluing his rotting teeth back into his mouth and tazing himself to fall asleep. Viewers can see that it’s significant that Omalu, with his careful operating methods and natural curiosity is the one to conduct the autopsy. He quickly recognizes that there is a bigger story to why Mike Webster, once a football legend, died in a state of mental chaos at the age of 50.
Omalu orders slices of Webster’s brain and notices strange splotches. These splotches, which appear as sickly, dark brown spots, are revealed to be a build-up of tau proteins. These proteins are mainly found in neurons, but after head trauma, they are unleashed and create tangles in the brain, resulting in dementia-like behavior.
“It’s like pouring wet concrete down kitchen pipes,” Omalu says in Concussion. “As it hardens it chokes the brain.”
A human brain can get concussed with 60 Gs of force. A typical hit in football is 100Gs. In animals like woodpeckers or big-horned sheep, their brains are protected against these forces. But there isn’t a single part of human anatomy that protects us from head-on collisions. Instead, our brains are freely floating in a layer of liquid, and when we hit our head, our brain sloshes forward and strikes our skull. If the hit is hard enough, these tau proteins are released.
According to Omalu, Mike Webster sustained more than 70,000 of these blows to his head over his entire football career.
This realization comes early in Concussion, and tackling the science is where the film is strongest. Omalu’s description of what he names Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or C.T.E., is clear and well reasoned, and the realization of what football did to Mike Webster is shocking.
But as the movie begins to tackle the National Football League, any momentum it gained during this scientific discovery is lost.
Concussion compares C.T.E. caused by football to cancer caused by the tobacco industry, where executives knew their product was killing people, but did nothing to stop it. It’s a bold claim to make, and if the movie had continued to use the scientific evidence as it did in the beginning to shock and anger the audience, Concussion would have been a scathing indictment of the N.F.L.’s refusal to act. Instead, the film feels like a slap on the wrist for the football conglomerate.
Today, 87 out of the tested 91 former N.F.L. players have been diagnosed with C.T.E., including Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Tyler Sash, who was only 27 when he died. While the disease can only be diagnosed after death, Omalu recently said he believes even O.J. Simpson, who played for the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers and was accused of murdering his wife, is suffering from C.T.E. because of his strange and aggressive behavior.
But now, as we learn more about the disease, it’s clear that it doesn’t just affect football players. Doctors have been aware of the problem in boxers since the 1920s, then thought to be a form of dementia, and now researchers are seeing evidence of the disease in players in hockey, rugby, soccer and even basketball. To make matters worse, new research from the Mayo Clinic says that one in three athletes in contact sports––at any age–– will go on to develop C.T.E.
It’s clear that Concussion was well intentioned in trying to portray these issues, and the David v. Goliath story of Omalu against the N.F.L. is captivating, but, as Omalu realizes at the end of the film, the problem is much bigger than one man against a corporation. The last scene we see with Omalu shows him watching a high school football practice, watching as two players collide and we hear their helmets cracking against each other. It’s clear that football isn’t going away, and neither will C.T.E.
Concussion didn’t hit all its points as well as it should have, but it makes sure you leave with a headache.