Cracks in the NFL Shield – Movie Review: “Concussion”

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“To achieve success, whatever the job we have, we must pay a price.”
– Vince Lombardi

As the regular season of National Football League (NFL) is winding down, “Concussion,” a major motion picture threatens to cast aside the playoffs and the 2015 season and reveal the dark cloud that hangs over one of America’s most popular, and profitable, sports: head trauma.

“Concussion” features Hollywood superstar Will Smith who plays Nigerian-born forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu. The film places a shining light on the most disturbing and controversial feature of football from pop warner (little league), high school, collegiate and professional, head trauma and its unconscionable consequences to its players, families and society.

The research of the scientific community on concussions and head trauma in the NFL threatens the very existence of the game. The NFL fears that the knowledge of head traumas and its effects would cause parents not to allow their children to play the sport. Rule changes have not succeeded in preventing further head traumas.

The emotional core of “Concussion” is the story of the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the tragedy of legendary football players who suffer from it, and the NFL’s decade long effort to prevent this discovery from reaching the mass audience of American football fans.

The Discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

The film begins with Smith as Dr. Omalu in 2002 is assigned to handle the autopsy in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, of the 50-year-old deceased “Iron Mike” Webster, 18 year NFL veteran, hall of famer, all-pro offensive linemen and heart of the four-time Super Bowl Champions, 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mike Webster is skillfully portrayed by veteran actor David Morse, who depicts a bird’s eye view of the steady decline of Webster after his retirement in the 1990s. Webster’s body and mind is battered and bruised from both playing football and the drugs administered by team doctors at the behest of coaches, owners and football culture to stay on the field at all cost. Mike Webster made reference to this in his Hall of Fame introduction ceremony speech in Canton, Ohio, “You know, it’s painful to play football, obviously … It’s not fun out there being in two-a-day drills in the heat of the summer and banging heads. It’s not a natural thing” (The NFL, Concussions, And The Battle for Truth, League of Denial, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, p.61) (watch his full speech here).

Dr. Omalu is amazed and bewildered to find the buildup of the protein tau in a seemingly normal Mike Webster brain. As authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, explain, “…tau, a protein that enables the brain’s ability to function but can also strangle. Without tau, neurons would collapse, cutting off the flow of nutrients and molecules to the cells… later in life, tau congeals into clumps called neurofibrillary tangles. These tangles slowly strangle the neurons from the inside. In neuropathology, they are one of the two defining markers in Alzheimer’s disease. The other marker is the buildup of beta-amyloid plaques: hardened proteins that surround the cells and poison them” (p.157-158).

These findings link football to the well-known condition in boxers described as being “punch-drunk” and the onset of “dementia pugilistica” – given scientific validation in the mid-70s after extended studies of boxers.

Through further research and collaboration with leading neuro-surgeons, the findings were written in a leading medical journal. Dr.Omalu would name his finding as CTE; Chronic (long-term), Traumatic (trauma), Encephalophy (damaged brain). He concluded that Mike Webster had suffered over seventy- thousand traumatic blows to the brain throughout his career from high school, college and professional, as the brain would hit up against the skull repeatedly.

In a startling monologue, Dr. Omalu punctuates the point that human beings were not anatomically or physically constructed to play football particularly the repetitive banging of their heads like rams or woodpeckers on a tree.

Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru correctly state, “The brain is essentially an oddly shaped sphere of Jell-O, crammed inside a box, covered in a shallow layer of cerebrospinal fluid…When someone is hit in the head or stops suddenly, the brain is jolted against the skull’s jagged interior, distorting or even severing the axons and interrupting the function of the synapses, the connections between the fibers of the brain. The immediate effect depends on where the connections are and the extent of the damage. Some people go temporarily blind. Others lose their memory or balance or become irritable. When the blow is particularly violent, the entire system short-circuits, like a neighborhood black out, and the person loses consciousness” (p.32-33).

Dr. Omalu, would catch the attention and rage of the NFL and its front office in mid-town Manhattan, New York. Three other NFL players would die, Pittsburgh Steelers Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Philadelphia safety Andre Waters with similar symptoms like Mike Webster of suicidal thoughts, mood swings, headaches and memory loss.

Big Tobacco Redux

“If only 10 percent of mothers in America begin to conceive of football as dangerous, that is the end of football.”
– Joe Morron, longtime neurological consultant to the Pittsburgh Steelers

The NFL is a $10 billion industry, with the most elaborated propaganda machine ever created – outside of the military. Former Commissioner Pete Rozelle authorized the creation of NFL Films under the leadership of Ed Sabal and his son, Steve, to capture the beauty and madness of the game anchored around the voice of “god,” John Facenda, who gave the replays of past games this epic emotion of war and modern day gladiators in battle.

The NFL created the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee in 1994 during the tenure of Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. At that point, a few players had retired due to the effects of repeated concussions: like New York Jets receiver Al Toon and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Merril Hoge. It was clear, based on the name and tone of the committee, the NFL and its medical experts like Joe Morron, didn’t take the issue seriously and actually claimed no link between playing football and brain damage. It was similar to the false claims of the tobacco companies that smoking had no connection to lung cancer.

Upon the release of the Committee’s report, the NFL went on frontal attack to refute Dr. Omalu’s findings and threats to destroy his career and those associated with the report. The film depicts the lengths the NFL, a major corporation with non-profit status, would go to protect and defend the NFL shield, popularity, mythology, and product against this African immigrant and forensic pathologist. In one scene, the county coroner Cyril Wecht, masterfully acted by Albert Brooks, explains to Dr. Omalu how powerful the NFL is as it owns a day of the week (Sunday) that the church once owned. Now the NFL owns weeknights, Monday and Thursday, and uses annual international games to sell the NFL shield to a global market and fan base.

One of the biggest skeptics of the effects of concussions, Dave Duerson, a former bruising defensive back for the highly decorated 1980s Chicago Bears’ defense. Duerson defended the NFL’s concussion policy and disputed Omalu’s research. Tragically, Duerson was slowly deteriorating like Mike Webster. Duerson would kill himself with a gunshot to the chest, leaving a suicide note requesting his brain be preserved and tested.

Six thousand retired players and their families brought a lawsuit against the NFL and Riddell equipment showed the insidious character of the NFL. It settled out of court – $765 million deal to pay former players, claiming no-fault in the settlement. The NFL has also set up its own brain bank to continue the research, as well as a new concussion protocol written by neurosurgeons at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Hospital, rule changes like shortening kickoffs, penalties for using your head as a weapon resulting in less head to head collisions and new helmets. In recent years many high profile football players have retired due to the emerging science and crisis like decorated San Francisco rookie, Chris Borland, in 2014.

The NFL proves time and time again that it cares more about its image and the profits of the owners than people, players, or fans. Not only does the NFL seek to hide the tremendous damage the game has done to former players, it has a terrifying record around women’s rights, and violence towards women. Every November, for Breast Cancer Awareness month, players wear pink paraphernalia to show their solidarity with Breast cancer survivors. This allows the NFL to increase viewership, the philanthropic profile of the league, and popularity among female fans.

Yet when the women in question are the partners of players, the NFL turns a blind eye. Over the past few years, countless players have been charged with allegations of rape or domestic violence towards their spouses and girlfriends, and the league’s leadership dishes out slaps on the wrist. Until the video of Ray Rice punching his girlfriend went public, the NFL wanted to suspend him two games – less than it wanted to suspend Tom Brady for allegedly taking air out of game balls. The issue of head trauma and women’s rights is tragically connected by the case of Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs who shot and killed his girlfriend before killing himself in front of the Chiefs GM and head coach in 2012. He had no history of violence but after his death a medical report determined that he suffered from CTE. His mother actually filed a wrongful death suit against the Chiefs stating that the team ignored signs of Belcher’s deteriorating mental health.

Even the grotesque sexism, misogyny and low-pay of cheerleaders is mind-blowing. Cheerleaders are generally paid about $70 to $90 per game, and even those who are paid monthly receive salaries ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 with the higher end of the scale being reserved for those with extensive cheerleading experience. Cheerleaders are often forced to do “volunteer” charity work, and their poverty wages are expected to cover purchasing all their beauty products, staying in shape, and covering health care expenses.

The Future of Football and Sports

“This is definitely the most incendiary project that I’ve ever worked on.”
– Will Smith, Sports Illustrated, 12/28/2015

The film ends with Dr. Omalu surviving the attacks from the NFL and validation of the research as a beloved football legend, Junior Seau, kills himself with a single shot. As NFL commissioner Goodell answers questions at a congressional hearing as to the state and integrity of the game. In the final scene, Dr. Omalu stops his car at a nearby football field as high school kids are practicing. He witnesses a violent collision between the receiver and defensive back as the scene goes to black.

This is not the first crisis the sport has faced. In 1905, following the death of 18 collegiate players on the field – many succumbing to head injuries – then President Teddy Roosevelt convened an emergency meeting to save the sport, despite calls for its banning. The end results of the meeting were rule changes like the forward pass was allowed. In 1939, helmets were required for the first time, as Riddell Equipment Company created a helmet with a hard plastic shell. By the 1950s, the helmet was required to be used by football teams on all levels.

“Concussion” poses a number of questions about the necessity of a sport despite the warnings of its health risks to its players and families. At the root of the crisis is the dominance of market forces from the lack of adequate health care during and after the players’ career, violent gladiator war like culture and mindless entertainment. Even if we change the rules, stop kids from strapping up or eliminate the market forces from the sport will it end the crisis?

To eliminate the crisis, we must examine the very character of sports under capitalism and its institutions. We must engage in a project to expand the hopes and dreams of young people particularly young men who play under the Texas Friday night lights or basketball courts in Brooklyn who aspire to be the next Tom Brady or LeBron James, but at what costs literally to life, limb, and brain.

The system of capitalism pigeonholes and suffocates the possibilities of what our young people can aspire to be in this world. The measure of success – and escaping grinding poverty – for working class and poor people, rural and urban alike, is being a musical entertainer or superstar athlete. Both are routinely described as greedy, yet athletes’ salaries are capped while team owners have no limit to their profits. The brutal reality is that only a selected few will reach heights of Peyton Manning or Michael Jordan status, while the rest face an uncertain future with low-wage jobs, poor housing and student debt.

The public relations of the NFL, and other major sports, emphasize the values they see as important: Praising the role of ownership and obedience to coaches and authority. Its military-style work ethic breaks down the spirit and natural inclination to express one’s own individual talents and collective voices. Back breaking two-a-day practices in the hot August sun led to the death of Minnesota Vikings linemen Korey Stringer in 2001, a vile reminder of the true nature of football, militarized structure, and hierarchical paradigm that we live under every day in capitalist society.

In contrast, football fans find community in supporting their local team, while escaping from the routine of their everyday existence. Those few hours of weekly entertainment; to cheer, cry and curse as they ride the roll coaster of emotions in a single game or season with their friends, neighbors, and family over the fortunes of their favorite team. Cynically, this passion is used by corporate America to sell advertising time, merchandise, and memorabilia. Fans are asked to pay exorbitant prices for tickets, food, and parking at the games – as well as footing the bill as tax payers for new stadiums that don’t provide sustainable living-wage union jobs and security for the community.

The recent events of the University of Missouri football team and their threat of a strike, exhibits the power that athletes have in sports and wider society. NBA and NFL players have stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement against law enforcement violence like Seattle Seahawks linemen, Michael Bennet. Just imagine a work stoppage in the NFL during the playoffs or Super Bowl on the basis of health care and the dastardly corporate practices of the NFL – it would launch a national discussion on the sport and on the role players have in fighting for more rights. Such an action would inspire a new generation of athlete-activists like NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Our struggle for a socialist world would redefine the purpose and role of sports in the society, expanding the vision of what our young people can accomplish as a painter, writer, teacher, world traveler or thinker. The project to rid sports of the unquenchable thirst to maximize profits for the 0.1% should be a key role of our movements for justice, true equality, and the preservation of sports. The socialization and collectivization of sports under a socialist world and democracy based on the 99% would unleash the full potential of human beings unbound creativity, sportsmanship, cooperation and solidarity. Sports has and can play a powerful role in this world, the film “Concussion” will make you think about the costs and rethink our insatiable appetite for violence and entertainment and reveal the deadly truth about any given Sunday that football brings to our lives and society.

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