Will Smith’s Concussion is meant to be something akin to Russell Crowe’s The Insider, about a low-level research chemist who came under attack for revealing the dirty secrets about tobacco. In both cases, the dangers of football and tobacco seem self-evident, but both Big Tobacco and the NFL have managed to pull decades-long cons on the American public, convincing us that no harm could come of their products. For most of America, both concussions and cigarettes were like Santa Claus to an eight year old: We knew way down underneath that he didn’t exist, but we wished to believe until someone forced us to acknowledge the truth.
That someone in the case of the NFL was Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian American coroner out of Pittsburgh, who examined the brains of several former Steelers’ players who went crazy and killed themselves and discovered that it was football that killed them. Specifically, repeated blows to the head led to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has similar symptoms to Alzheimer’s Disease.
It’s a fascinating subject, and Concussion should be required viewing for anyone considering letting their kids play football. It’s a shame, however, that the movie is more important than it is entertaining. It’s a dull movie, in part because it’s difficult to dramatize a forensic pathologist looking at slides through a microscope and shaking his head for two hours. Unfortunately, Concussion’s attempts to add drama — a love interest, a pregnancy, and the pursuit of the American dream — only detract from the real story: That playing football will f*ck you up. For life. But like Big Tobacco, the NFL has had enough money, influence, and power to hide the real dangers of the sport (in fact, the former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue worked in the same law firm that defended Big Tobacco back in the 90s).
It’s a well-intentioned movie, but it doesn’t warrant Will Smith, a $35 million budget, and a Christmas Day release. It would’ve worked better as a documentary, and while that format may not have given it the publicity Will Smith can bring to a film, the people who need to see it — current and former NFL players, or anyone considering playing football — would’ve found it. What they would’ve found is that 28 percent of NFL players ultimately end up with CTE, and while that fact may not stop a lot of people from pursuing a career in the NFL, it at least allows them to be informed. There are still a lot of smokers in the world, but at least they know it will eventually kill them.
What it means for the future of the NFL is still uncertain, but don’t expect it to be the same game 20 years from now. Roger Goodell (hilariously and unnecessarily played by Luke Wilson in Concussion) and ESPN can only hide the facts for so long. The numbers of school-age children playing football are already dropping precipitously, and the pool of talent available is likely to drop proportionately. The NFL is still likely to exist in some form, but like the military, it will probably pull from the socioeconomically disadvantaged even more than it does now: People willing to accept the risks in order to escape poverty.
We, the viewers of the most popular sport in America, have to accept our own role in it as well. The violence, the injuries, the off-the-field behaviors of players, and the oily duplicitousness of Roger Goodell and the fat cats who control the NFL have already soured many of us on the sport, but when we do watch and when we draft our fantasy teams and hold our Super Bowl parties, we also have to accept that we’re watching men slowly kill themselves, one tackle at a time, and that we are contributing to it.