“Concussion,” which opens in theaters nationwide Friday, is a movie ostensibly about Dr. Bennet Omalu (portrayed by Will Smith), the forensic pathologist who is credited with making the initial discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and pushing to expose its prevalence in football players despite resistance from the NFL.
But the more interesting narrative in the film has less to do with the discovery of CTE but what the knowledge of its existence means for the future of football.
At the heart of the movie is a push-pull between the beauty and popularity of football vs. the devastation that thousands of small blows to the head can cause over the years. Knowing that close to 100 former NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE posthumously, how do current and future football players, parents and leagues at all levels balance the long-term risks against short-term gains?
With fans, any moral dilemma has played out mostly as rhetoric. We might say we’re conflicted, but TV viewership for the NFL was at an all-time high in 2014, and midseason numbers in 2015 suggest this year will be even better.
But the push-pull comes off brilliantly in the film through Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurologist portrayed by Alec Baldwin who becomes Omalu’s ally in the battle to expose CTE. Bailes is the former team physician for the Steelers and currently has many roles — including chairman of the Pop Warner Football Medical Advisory Committee.
Unlike Omalu, who is of Nigerian descent and had no football background before coming to the United States, Bailes is a former football player and loves the game. In the film, his character speaks glowingly about the beauty of the game even in the face of the potential tragedy he’s helping uncover. In a conference call after a screening of the movie, Bailes said he has two children who play football.
“I think football is safer than it’s ever been,” he said, while also noting that the latest numbers show a nearly 10 percent decline in Pop Warner participation. “There have been many steps taken in the last few years during the last decade of discovery which have made football safer. However, it is still a contact sport.”
As for the risks associated with the game? Bailes said: “I guess I have a libertarian point of view that … if someone, including someone who’s not yet 18, and their parents understand the risk and benefit ratio, I think they can make their own decisions about the benefits of all sports including football.”
Those whose premature deaths have been attributed to CTE — such as former Steelers center Mike Webster, whose abnormal brain led to Omalu’s initial discovery in 2002 — cannot go back and answer the question, “Would you do it all over again if you knew what we know now?” But others can.
That notion is the one that threatens the future of the sport. The New York Times reported in September that the league pressured those associated with the film into softening the script. ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” reported earlier this week that the league backed out of funding a $16 million study in Boston that would further CTE research. The NFL, through a spokesman on Twitter, said ESPN’s story was wrong.
That ESPN story included this passage: “Some neuroscientists believe the league uses its money and influence to reward researchers who focus primarily on issues such as safety, equipment and proper tackling.”
Bailes, who is also a member of the NFL Players Association Health and Safety Committee, said he thinks the league has made “sweeping changes” to the sport and said “we’ve done almost all we can do to reduce unnecessary or gratuitous head contact whether it’s in practice or games.”
But even with legislation, it’s a sport that involves repeated head contact — the types of “subconcussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms” that nevertheless have been found to contribute to CTE, according to the Boston University School of Medicine’s findings.
And even with attempts to clean up the game, Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was not ejected (even though he was later suspended for one game) after delivering what looked to be a gratuitous helmet-to-helmet hit on Panthers cornerback Josh Norman on Sunday.
As such, while it doesn’t feel like a traditional Christmas movie, “Concussion” does feel particularly relevant. The late December release has the extra impact of hitting viewers, and the NFL, when it matters most: as the importance of games intensifies with playoffs approaching.
How much will the movie resonate? At the least, it figures to intensify our already complicated relationship with football.
“I think and I hope that the movie is going to generate a lot of discussion and further awareness of our most popular sport and in my opinion our greatest sport in America,” Bailes said.