Special to The History Place
On June 25, 2014, in my hometown of Philadelphia, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania approved a revised settlement agreement in the class action lawsuit brought several years earlier on behalf of retired National Football League players who suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. The thousands of former football players who have benefited, or one day will benefit from this courtroom victory, can thank the San Joaquin County coroner who discovered and named the disease.
Dr. Bennet Omalu was an assistant coroner in Pittsburgh, when he autopsied the body of a former Steelers center, who went mad and then died of a heart attack at the tender age of 50. Dr. Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant to America, was intrigued by the apparent good health of the deceased athlete’s brain. No one, he knew, went as crazy as this guy had before his untimely demise, without some evidence of brain damage. At his own expense, he pursued the mystery, finally concluding that the thousands of head traumas endured by NFL players from childhood through their pro careers resulted in blood being leeched into their brains “like wet concrete being poured down a pipe.”
Omalu unleashed a firestorm. Like the cigarette industry before it, the NFL apparently knew more than it was prepared to admit to an adoring public. With 20 million fans packing the league’s cathedrals -- “Sunday used to belong to God. Now they own it,” says a character in Concussion, the film that tells Omalu’s story -- the NFL was not going to allow an assistant coroner to wreak havoc on its multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Concussion tells the story of Omalu’s struggle to be heard, and believed, above the din of damning criticism unleashed by the League against him and his colleagues.
Will Smith, displaying what to my ear sounded like a flawless Nigerian accent, is just terrific as Dr. Omalu. A supporting cast that includes Alec Baldwin -- for once one of the good guys -- and David Morse as the tragic Iron Mike Webster, the first player diagnosed by Omalu with C.T.E., help make the film engaging. It is also enraging and upsetting, according to recent news reports.
For example, New York Jets tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson wrote in Sports Illustrated, “I’ve played in 165 games, including playoffs, participated in over 10,000 plays, and this doesn’t even include practices or training camps. Though I cannot remember ever having a concussion, I now know as an offensive lineman that it is the frequency of collisions that can ultimately lead to brain injury. It’s a different conversation when you are involved in the story and not just watching a movie about it. I fear the unavoidable truth is that playing football has placed me in harm’s way, and I am not yet sure of the full extent of what it might cost me.”
Regarding the accuracy of the depiction presented in Concussion, Don Carey of the Detroit Lions wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “Going in, I expected it would be a watered-down or exaggerated version of what NFL players actually go through, as is the case with most sports films. However, I was completely blown away at the accuracy and candor of the film.”
Dr. Omalu, who reportedly has seen the film a dozen times already, says Smith “stole my soul away from me.” Despite the actor’s outstanding performance, he lost out at the Golden Globes last Sunday to Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant. But no matter -- I’ll take Smith’s portrayal of a real-life, modern-day hero over DiCaprio’s mythical bear battler any day of the week. At a time when Bill Cosby, the butt of some tasteless jokes at the Globes event, is breaking my heart one revelation at a time, the portrayal in Concussion of an everyday man who does a great service in the face of great opposition is heart balm indeed.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language.
Dr. Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer, consultant and writer, whose webpage is https://jamescastagnera.wordpress.com/. His most recent book is Handbook for Student Law for Higher Education Administrators (Revised Edition 2014).