New Film Renews Focus on Football Concussions

This Christmas, Columbia pictures will release the story of Dr. Bennett Omalu, the forensic pathologist responsible for the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE in the brains of NFL players, and his campaign to expose the truth.

The film, titled Concussion, is said to be part medical suspense and biographical thriller. It comes on the heels of a landmark decision in April by federal district court judge Anita Brody that gave final approval to a settlement between the league and thousands of ex-players who have accused the NFL of concealing a link between football and CTE. Based on the 2009 GQ expose Game Brain by Jeanne Marie Laskas, the film depicts the heroic efforts of Dr. Omalu to prove that "Iron Mike" Webster's premature death from dementia, along with the deaths of other players, was directly related to the repeated concussions he received as center for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. It has been said that Webster had been in the equivalent of "25,000 automobile crashes" in over 25 years of playing football at the high school, college and professional levels.

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Concussion is preceded by a 2009 book/documentary, League of Denial, produced by Frontline and broadcast on PBS. In it, an NFL doctor, in a discussion with Dr. Omalu, is quoted as saying "Bennett, do you know the implications of what you're doing? If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football." Meanwhile, at the outset of the 2015, All American linebacker Chris Borland walked away from a multimillion-dollar contract with the San Francisco 49ers, citing health risks. Since then, Borland has been characterized by ESPN as "the most dangerous man in football."

The High Price of Violent Sports

As a result of the April 2015 decision, the league will pay out roughly $1 billion in benefits to NFL players suffering from the disease over the next 65 years, equaling about what the league makes in annual sponsorships alone. In other words, the NFL skates. Meanwhile, Americans continue to gather in droves every weekend to watch high schoolers, college kids and professionals risk their mental health and their futures. Nobody - players, coaches, parents, fans - can deny the inherent dangers. Yet the sport is as popular as ever.

Explanations of American's obsession with football abound:
  • Vicarious hormonal thrill and adrenaline rush
  • Bonding with fellow team supporters and sense of community
  • Intellectual attraction to competitive strategies executed with speed and brawn
  • Our national identity as fighting, competitive and victorious people

The list goes on and on. And despite the violent and dangerous nature of the sport, nothing seems to tarnish football's image: not misogynist wife-beaters, drug offenders, brain damage or observations from former players like Borland who says that "It's...a spectacle of violence, for entertainment, and you're [the players] the actors in it. You're complicit in that: You put on the uniform. And it's a trivial thing at its core...That's the truth about it."

A Barbaric Culture?

To the degree that there are any predominant characteristics that make up a distinctly American culture, an outsider might come to the conclusion that ours is fundamentally barbaric. Efforts to limit access to lethal automatic weapons, whose sole purpose is to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible, are scoffed at by the majority of the country's lawmakers. The most powerful lobby in the country is the firearms industry. Mass murders are commonplace. Violent video games stoke bloodlust in children before they're old enough to understand what real war is. And the nation's favorite pastime is watching twenty-first century gladiators beat the crap out of each other over a ball.

Yes, it would be easy for outsiders, observing what they might of our sensationalist media, to draw the conclusion that American culture is rooted in violence, greed, and a desire to win at all costs. Some might argue that good old dog-eat-dog capitalism breeds the "winner takes all," "risk/reward" attitude that seems so pervasive in American society, and that, at its core, Britain (and rugby) is no different.

Still others might argue that American culture is lack of culture, not in the sense that the nation is uncivilized, but rather in the sense that the nation is far too heterogeneous to have what we might define as one "culture." But if a nation is defined by it's broadest interests, as depicted in popular media, there's no getting around the fact that America at its core is fascinated with violence, and American football, kind of says it all.

Fixing American Football

It's doubtful that Concussion will acknowledge the efforts that the NFL, along with college and high school athletic departments, have made to decrease brain injuries on the field. The film is about how difficult and risky it was to get the NFL to even admit that CTE existed and was caused by football. Meanwhile, supporters of American football know that if the sport is to continue to thrive they must make every effort possible to mitigate brain damage. (I don't think any former linebackers are suing for knee damage.)

One might think that thicker helmets would help prevent cranial shock, but in fact the opposite is true: it just makes for a stronger battering ram, increasing the likelihood of head-to-head combat. Some high schools and colleges are installing in-helmet sensors that will indicate when a player has been hit hard enough to cause a concussion. Coaches and trainers are alerted, and the player is sidelined until a prognosis can be made.

Other rule changes, like shortening the kickoff by five yards and declaring "forcibly initiating contact with the crown of the helmet outside the tackle box" illegal may continue to reduce concussions, which the NFL reports are down 40% since 2012. But, as with any "contact sport," playing football risks serious injury. But so do non-contact sports: auto-racing, ski-racing, bicycling, racquetball, even dressage can put the skull in harm's way. And while enthusiasts aren't apt to publicly admit that it's the risk of serious injury that makes dangerous sports exciting, at least partially, we still hold organizations like the NFL liable for injuries, which at least provides a modicum of civility.

Concussion isn't likely to fuel a debate about the safety of professional or amateur football - that verdict is already in - but it is likely to help make the NFL even more accountable to those that provide the rest of us with our weekend entertainment: the players. We may someday deem it unacceptable for athletes to risk their lives for our entertainment, just as the Romans eventually decided that publicly feeding the Christians to the lions was in poor taste. But I wouldn't count on that happening any time soon.