Let’s work from this premise: You go to hockey games for the fights and watch NASCAR for the crashes. The element of danger is what separates popular spectator sports from, say, competitive ship-in-a-bottle building.
That’s OK. Participating in certain games implies consent to the consequences. Lawyers call it an assumption of risk which means, for instance, Oberlin College athletes can sue because their feelings were hurt, but not because they pulled something stretching for the shuttlecock.
Ahh, but as a Shakespearean massage parlor might advertise, “Herein lies the rub.”
“(The football player) knows the physical risks,” Will Smith as Nigerian doctor Bennett Omalu says in the medical drama “Concussion,” “but he does not know he can lose his mind.”
That’s because, except for the NFL, whom the film alleges knew, no one else had made the correlation between latent debilitating brain trauma and repetitive head injuries until Omalu autopsied Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who at 50 suffered dementia and mysteriously died.
It was Omalu’s style to understand not just “how” someone died but “why” they died, which sent the neuropathologist on a personally-funded research expedition that pits him not just against one of the most powerful institutions in America, but its fans as well.
What Omalu coined, what CTs could not detect, was Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, something studied as far back as the 1920s, then in boxers as “dementia pugilistica.”
“God did not intend for us to play football,” he says to a colleague, citing the absence of a cushion around our brains that, for example, woodpeckers have.
No one is more protective of their brand than the NFL. “They own a day of the week,” his boss (Albert Brooks) points out as Omalu deliberates defending himself against their attempts to discredit him.
But as time presses on and more former NFLers die before their time, it becomes an issue harder to ignore, especially when it gets the attention of a former team doctor (Alec Baldwin) with a conscience.
Though the film sounds dry, writer/director Peter Landesman does a good job normalizing the jargon and interweaving Omalu’s efforts with threads of ever more suffering players.
As for Smith, he seems comfortable with Omalu’s accent and overall delivers a mature and dignified performance in a film that’s surprisingly suspenseful.
Because of Omalu, the NFL has vowed improvements — though I suspect most of the movie-going parents will do what they can to constrict the future pipeline from which new players can be drawn. That might be the only solution to an inherently and historically dangerous sport.