Vohra's View: ‘Concussion’ gives the NFL a real pounding

Bikram Vohra 07:06 31/12/2015
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Star Will Smith and his subject Dr Bennet Omalu.

Sports movies, like good soldiers, do their bit and then largely fade away. But those that become a hit are especially uplifting and make one want to yell ‘Oooo-ra’ because the rooting for the underdog has a very high ‘feel good’ texture to it. When these films are based on true life incidents the screenplays can be riveting. 

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It is a sobering thought that in 87 years of the Oscars only 16 features with a sports theme have been nominated and just three have won the statue. No cigars for guessing… ‘Million Dollar Baby’, ‘Rocky’ and ‘Chariots of Fire’.

This year there could be a fourth not just because it’s well made but because the controversy surrounding it and the resistance by the NFL to not just the medical findings in 2002 that make the storyline but to the release of the film itself has guaranteed it riveting attention.

Concussion’ deals with the findings of Nigerian born pathologist Bennet Omalu who became a literal game-changer when he autopsies the Pittsburgh Steeler’s icon Mike Webster following his death in a pick-up truck.

What follows is a saga in self denial. As several other players killed themselves in the oddest circumstances, the NFL simply went ostrich on the facts and refused to accept the contention that frequent blows to the head led to a specific brain damage that sent out self-destructive signals.

Dr Omalu labelled it chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and stuck to his guns despite slurs and attacks on his professionalism. He indicated that someone like Webster probably received 70,000 blows to his head in his playing career, more than enough to turn his brain to mush.

During his research he also discovered that animals have wraparound protection to their brains, more like a seatbelt thereby allowing rams and bulls to butt heads without damage. Humans have no such restraints. Perhaps we haven’t yet developed to the point where our bodies have evolved to make extreme contact sport safe. And that is exactly what Will Smith so brilliantly puts across in his portrayal of Dr Omalu. 

Amazingly, the NFL has allegedly paid off 5000 playing members on its roles for injuries sustained on the field but refuses to divulge the reasons for the compensation.

After the film hit the screens earlier this month, there were several accusations that legal action threatened by the NFL had compelled the film’s makers to cut out some ‘powerful’ scenes that were particularly critical of the football body’s circling of the wagons against this medical crisis.

Hacked emails show that Sony Pictures altered and cut out specific scenes to keep the NFL happy but since they were in the trailer released earlier but not in the final film it kind of gave the game away. The controversy doesn’t really matter because even the doctored version smacks you in the face and in the mind.

If the NFL believes they got away with it by forcing some visuals to fall to the editing floor it is very short-sighted. The message screams the warning: CTE is for real.

In a nation where pro football is a religion and a $45bn franchise this spotlight into a dark and well-hidden corner or the sport has obviously caused considerable consternation. The revelation that 28 per cent (nearly one in three) of football players will suffer brain damage could not only stymie the sport but have mothers opting for safer sports.

As the script so dramatically indicates, if 10 per cent of America’s ‘Soccer Moms’ pull their kids out of football training there will be no legacy to hand over to the next generation. And the groundswell has begun as ‘Concussion’ raises unanswered questions. With an average 38 per cent increase over one year in a pro team’s worth who needs this headache? Certainly not the NFL.

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