National Commentary

‘Concussion’: Football’s Ugly Secret Exposed

nfbenton-mug“Concussion,” the powerful Will Smith movie that opened in theaters on Christmas, tells the true story of the discovery of “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” or CTE, in the brains of numerous deceased professional football players, and the football league’s attempts to cover it up.

The well-made film is a scathing indictment of pro football, on the one hand, and the dismal condition of American popular culture, on the other. As much as one might hope it might, this film is not going to overturn that in one fell swoop. But it is an effective surgical strike that will definitely add to a process in motion to end the madness that it chronicles.

Yes, this is Will Smith’s finest performance as the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, the center of this true story of what began in 2002 when he conducted an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers football star Mike Webster.

But it was the characterization of the effects of the asymptomatic brain disease which was most compelling. CTE is incurable and cannot be detected until an autopsy is conducted on a brain, but is manifested by severe psychotic episodes, dementia and suicidal behavior beginning somewhat later in life.

The terrible decline in the life of Webster, for example, saw him go from his 1997 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame to his self-inflicted death as a homeless man five years later. As the actor who played his role, David Morse, said, “(Webster) was adored by people, the City of Pittsburgh, but what we see is a man at the end of his life with dementia. He’s gluing his teeth in with Super Glue, tasering himself. He’s just in a kind of hell at the end of his life.” He was only 50 when he died.

Who wants their life to become this? Or anyone’s life? The film also chronicles the highly immoral way in which NFL management sought to cover all of this up, with one reference to the fact that such outcomes were known to top officials for years before any were forced to acknowledge them.

Since the period covered in the film, subsequent autopsies of former players has found that over 90 percent of them had been suffering from CTE.

The other takeaway from this film is presented in its final scene, when Dr. Omalu stops to watch a high school football practice, and sees young players goaded on by gravelly-voiced coaches flying into each other helmet to helmet.

Our culture has become so sick that despite all the evidence (the Omalu story had already been written about extensively), fathers continue to insist that their sons prove their manhood by going “all in” on the football field from almost as soon as they can walk, and angrily insisting on this ritual as if to oppose it were for ideological reasons, alone.

Former Chicago Bears football coach Mike Ditka – and you can’t get much more macho than him – was recently asked in an interview about CTE whether, knowing what he now knows, if he’d let his son play football. He said no.

But far too many macho American dads are ignoring all this, even if some are justifying their behavior by citing changes in the game to guard against concussions.

CTE, however, is not the result of concussions, per se, but of countless often undetected jolts to the head that are unavoidable on almost every play in either a practice or game.

The human brain, as Will Smith’s character notes in the movie, was not made for football, because unlike a woodpecker’s, for example, the human brain has no insulation to protect it from the effect of a blow to the cranium.

The brain sloshes around inside the skull and gets slammed against its inner wall every time the head is struck. The repetition of this is what produces CTE.

When I went to the theater complex to see this film, the place was crawling with people there mostly to see “Star Wars.” There was only one other person in the screening room showing “Concussion.”

Alas, Americans obsessed with their high school, college and pro football clearly prefer fantasy to reality.