The Impact of ‘Concussion’
by Ivan Cole
Sometimes the essential message of a film can be condensed into one scene. There is such a moment in the latter moments of the movie Concussion.
Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is in a ballroom addressing a crowd of the family members of NFL players that have succumbed to the effects of CTE, including the widow of former Pittsburgh Steeler Justin Strezelczyk. In one of those strokes of artistic license, Mike Webster (heartbreakingly channeled by David Morse) is in the audience as well.
“I don’t hate football. My wife has started watching it. I see the grace, the drama.
I once said I wished I had never met Mike Webster. I was wrong. He was committed, a captain, a warrior, quiet in his pain. He has given us a gift. The gift of knowing.
In the place I come from, we take care of our warriors, give respect to those with the power to heal them.
These men are not machines. Not commodity. Not video game figure. We loved them when they were heroes.
By dying they speak for the living. And I speak for them. That is all I do.
Forgive them. Forgive yourselves. Be at peace.”
He would also say that men come to professional football knowing they risk their long term physical health by doing so. We also now know the chances are high they may lose their minds and all that implies as well. And they need to know of that risk as well.
Thus Concussion more or less successfully straddles the line between both celebration and condemnation of professional football. Unless you have completely buried your head in the sand on this issue, something I would find hard to believe in this community, then the revelations will not be shattering. The viewer will be required to see head on that which one might prefer to peek at out the corner of the eye, metaphorically speaking.
To be sure, it is an indictment of the game of football, particularly at its highest level. “Football killed Mike Webster,” Omalu says. But it is a circumstance neither driven by malice or negligence. Like the connections between smoking and cancer or coal mining and black lung, it has been an unknown danger and consequence of playing the game. The unsettling question is, now that we do know, what do we do about it? The alibis of ignorance or innocence will no longer do.
If there is a villain in this piece, it would be the corporate mindset that is often biased against human values in favor of whatever is profitable to a small number of people. The NFL (embodied by our good friend Roger Goodell) has clearly succumbed to this value system and is, probably rightfully so, compared to Big Tobacco in its actions. Cover ups, denial, smears, character assassinations and worse, all for the sake of ‘protecting the Shield’ is the standard procedure here, with the unintended consequence of producing the outcome they have sought to prevent.
This will likely be a particularly difficult movie for Steelers fans. Though mention is made of players from other teams such as Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Junior Seau, the action is largely centered in Pittsburgh, where Omalu worked as a medical examiner in the coroner’s office under Cyril Wecht. The tragic final acts of the lives of Webster, Strezelczyk and Terry Long is on center stage.
And for any member of Steelers Nation old enough to have been following the team when these players were part of the fold, it cannot be easy to watch. In fact, one of the dramatic arcs of the movie is the reaction to Omalu, who is Nigerian and not a fan of American football, by Steelers fans, including co-workers, to what they see as the desecration of Webster. The combination of this animosity, along with league efforts to discredit him, leads to Omalu basically being run out of town.
Interestingly, besides the league office and certain team doctors, notably Joseph Maroon in Pittsburgh, team ownership and staffs come away clean. And the reaction to the movie in certain circles has been anything but defensive.
Antonio Brown took the WPIAL Champion Clairton High School football team to see the movie. Jimmy Jones, who played for the George Allen Washington teams in the seventies, told me on Tuesday that the league had made provisions for former players to see the movie for free, and that he was planning on getting together with Charlie Taylor and other Redskins alums to take it in.
As for me? My football playing days were cut short in part by shoulder and knee injuries. At the time I thought it was bad luck. Today I feel I was under the protection of angels.