A confronting true story that brings shocking new meaning to the phrase 'contact sport'.
February 18, 2016
87. Just hold onto that number for a moment. We’ll come back to it. In the meantime, some science, for it is in the science of Concussion where this movie shines brightest. Science, and specifically statistical analysis, is not a precise art. It recognises that there will always exist the possibility of chance being the driving factor behind any set of results. Accordingly, for a theory to gain credence, it must first secure what is known as statistical significance – a minimum threshold above which results are deemed to be more than coincidence. But what if the only way for you to meet that threshold – the only way to prove to the world that you were right – was for people to die?
Such was the fascinating (if also deeply disturbing) dilemma facing Nigerian-born American forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu in 2002. Omalu had been called upon to autopsy a beloved former NFL player named Mike Webster, and concluded that the cause of Webster's death was cognitive disfunction resulting from repeated and severe blows to the head – a condition Omalu ultimately named chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Put another way, Omalu theorised that playing NFL was akin to almost guaranteeing some form of brain damage.
Webster’s case alone, however, was not enough to prove CTE’s existence. Omalu needed a minimum of three, and since CTE could only be established post-mortem, he had to wait for more NFL players to die in order to test it. Of the many tragedies outlined in Concussion, perhaps the most confronting is quite simply how little time Omalu had to spend waiting.
Concussion, then, is to football what The Insider was to cigarettes, with the National Football League playing the role of Big Tobacco. The Outsider, in fact, would have made an equally appropriate title for this film, because if being Nigerian in America wasn’t already hard enough on Omalu, the NFL’s attempts to brand him 'the man who wants to kill football' rendered him about as un-American as could be imagined. And yet he persisted, and such is the substance of this tale.
As already indicated, the science of Concussion is compelling and extraordinary, matched only by the performance of its leading man, Will Smith. Sporting a disarming smile and an impressively consistent accent, Smith puts in his best performance in years – a fine accomplishment made all the more impressive given the less-than-spectacular script he had to work with. Concussion, in its efforts to render this a one man vs the world saga, spends far too much time dealing with Omalu’s home life and not nearly enough grappling with the two biggest questions raised by his research: how much did the NFL know, and how long did they know it? For a film about the extreme, even fatal impacts in NFL, Concussion lands an unreasonably soft blow against the corporation that kept these dangers a secret from its players.
Which brings us back to the number 87. That’s where the count now stands in terms of deceased former players who’ve tested positive for CTE. Even more shockingly, that’s 87 out of a total of 91 tested – a statistical return of 96%. Concussion tells merely the opening stages of a story that is still alive and well to this day. Tragically, that's more than can be said of many of the characters who’ve taken part in its telling. As such, while the film is undoubtedly confronting, it's not nearly critical enough.