The upcoming Will Smith film “Concussion” could create a real headache for the National Football League this season.
In the movie, Smith plays real-life, Nigerian-born forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurological disease, in football players and put it on the league’s radar in the early 2000s. CTE, caused by repeated brain trauma, is believed to cause depression, dementia and other potentially dangerous behavioral changes.
The NFL’s initial response to Omalu’s findings, which received national attention in the wake of a string of suicides by former players, was less than collegial, according to the 2009 GQ profile of Omalu on which the film is based.
Sony has positioned the film for a Christmas Day release, which suggests that the studio is bullish on its awards season prospects. In an email leaked in the midst of the infamous hack of the studio, insiders speculated that “Concussion” is “going to piss off the NFL.”
The first official trailer for the film was released on Monday, igniting a firestorm of social media buzz:
The film appears to portray Omalu facing considerable resistance from league officials when he repeatedly attempts to raise awareness about the danger professional players are facing when they take the field. Writer-director Peter Landesman has characterized his story as a “David vs. Goliath” tale and some are already comparing it to director Michael Mann’s acclaimed 1999 drama about corruption within the tobacco industry, “The Insider.”
According to The Nation’s Dave Zirin, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (played by actor Luke Wilson in the film) should get “night sweats” watching this early footage.
“The NFL spent decades infantilizing the public and denying parents the informed consent about the dangers of the game. Science is not a friend to Roger Goodell, and neither is full disclosure. ‘Concussion’ looks like it could cement the growing conventional wisdom that this league damages the brain and its leaders are in over their heads,” writes Zirin.
In addition to domestic violence, head injuries to active players and the impact they can have even after athletes leave the game has been the biggest hot button issue in football over the last several years.
Even President Obama has weighed in, saying if he had a son he wouldn’t allow him to play football because of the health risks. And yet he acknowledged that some of the responsibility falls on the players. “These guys, they know what they’re doing,” he told The New Yorker in 2014. “They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”
In 2013, a multi-million dollar deal was reached between the NFL and 5,000 ex-players who had sued the league over damages due to concussions. However, as recently as April, the two sides were still clashing over details of the settlement.