“Concussion”reconfigured my view of football

Concussion will change the way you look at football forever. It will get your attention.

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Concussion/Columbia Pictures

The tale of the new film Concussion is simple. Dr. Bennet Omalu(Will Smith) didn’t want to destroy America’s game, football. He simply wanted to protect the players who take the field and absorb the thousands of hits. He wanted players to know what they were getting into. Peter Landesman’s new film isn’t fancy or covered in Oscar worthy ways from head to toe but its message will live on beyond our lifetimes. Football isn’t just a dangerous sport. It’s a deadly one.

The worst thing people will do when seeing this movie is wave it off as nonsense. They will go to their Sunday games, cheer on the big hit, and make short vines of football players getting rocked so hard that they are carried off the field afterwards. People will watch these over and over again. On Youtube, Sportscenter and NFL Network. Violence on any level fascinates the human brain. People hate to admit it, but it does. They will say the graceful aspect of the game pulls them in. Same for boxing fans who say the sweet science is the main allure, when in actuality it’s the hard knockouts they love. That’s why Mike Tyson was a stud and he couldn’t even box. People love violence so they will overlook this important film.

Omalu was a forensic neuropathologist. He’d cut open dead bodies and root out the cause of death, even talking to them before hand, like a corpse whisperer. He came upon an ex-NFL football legend, Mike Webster and found brain bleeds and swelling that would suggest Alzheimer’s but that wasn’t it. It was what he would later call Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy(CTE). If it sounds like a handful, imagine being an former pro football player under 50 years old who pulled his teeth out and used super glue to put them back. As Omalu tells a room full of skeptics towards the end of the film, “A football player should know he may break a bone or two. He shouldn’t know he would lose his mind.”

The doctor pulled a rug out from under people’s normal thought process. Millions of people figured football players knew or were at least informed about the long term effects of concussions. They weren’t. Players had no idea their brain was being slammed, dislodged and slowly releasing protein on every big hit like a racquetball being juggled inside a small jar.

Smith is amazing as Omalu, adapting the accent, mannerisms and imbuing the part with strength. This may be his finest work yet, and he has been nominated for Oscars before. I had my doubts going into the film, but Smith did the role great justice. Without his conviction, the story wouldn’t resonate.

Omalu was threatened by the NFL. The government came down on his boss’ practice and tried to derail him. As a fellow doctor tells him, he gave the league’s biggest Boogeyman a name. America dedicated a day of the week to football and here was this doctor, who wasn’t even a citizen of the United States, trying to tell them football is bad for the brain like smoking is on the lungs. No one wanted to believe it until former players started dropping like flies to suicide and their brains had no other answers. How do you define madness if you don’t register or appreciate the science behind it?

You will be shocked at this film. It will reconfigure your thought process on football. I may not stop watching the game, but I will never look at it the same again. You can’t unsee what is shown to you in this film. If Landesman’s film doesn’t come off as Oscar worthy, it’s only because it plays for the most part like a documentary, albeit with great performances. Its effect won’t fully land for years. There are rumblings though.

Chris Borland, San Francisco 49ers running back, retired this year after one season in the NFL, giving up three million. Patrick Willis gave up 7.8 million dollars at the age of 30. Jake Locker retired as a free agent at 26 after making 12.6 million. Jason Worilds retired even though every team wanted him. He was 27 years old. They are getting out early, due to the effects of CTE. Maybe they all won’t admit that, but it’s true. You can read more about that here.

The NFL won’t do a thing. They will keep trying to read a book with the lights turned off. They want nothing to do with the 16 million being donated to CTE research. Recently, former player Eric Winston pledged to donate his brain to research. Everybody is taking action except for the NFL. High School coaches are teaching new methods of tackling, but the hits are still hard and the effects are excessive. At least now players know what can happen. That is all Dr. Omalu wanted to do. Raise awareness for football players about the dangers of entering into this game.

Sorry if this review started off as a “should you see this or not” practice and devolved into an expose, but sometimes the morals and meanings of particular films take a hold of you in unexpected ways. While it isn’t memorable in how it was made or feature brilliant direction, Concussion hits hard enough as it is delivered. It doesn’t need the extra cute trimmings. It’s got the truth and an Oscar worthy Will Smith.

Imagine walking up to a door. The person outside the door says, “Go in, participate, you may get hurt initially but there are no long term effects, oh and do this for 8-10 years.” So you walk in and absorb more punishment than ever thought. You are paid handsomely but were unaware of the cost of the game. Welcome to the NFL.

Do me a favor and the next time you watch a game and see a big hit, register how you first react. Don’t look around too much. Don’t think. Just react. You know how I will react now when I see a helmet to helmet hit between a helpless ball carrier and another man leaving his feet to take out that other guy…I will be nauseous. Unsettled. I’m not sure how passionately I will follow this game. It won’t be easy. Hypocritical behavior will follow because I am one of those people who claim to love the beautiful pass or methodical movement of an offense downfield. I will struggle at times with this game. There is beauty in it but ridiculous amounts of danger. What if players knew 30-40 years ago what we knew now?

Concussion begs you to consider that question. Is this a great overall movie? That is debatable. Should it get your attention? Absolutely. It will have mine for decades. When my son asks about football, Concussion will be on my mind.  One of those rare instances where movies aren’t just entertainment. They are transcendent.

Concussion/Columbia Pictures

Author: D. Buffa

A regular guy who feels a journalistic hunger to tell the news. I blog because its wired into my brain to write what I think in print. I offer an opinion. A solo tour here. Take regular stories and offer my spin on them. Sports, film, television, music, fatherhood, culture, food, and so on. Commentary on everything. A St. Louis native and Little Rock resident who wants to write just to keep the hands fresh and ready.

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