Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The NFL's Hollywood concussion

Any time Hollywood makes a film based on a true story, the casting tells all. Filmmakers signal who the heroes and villains are when they choose the actors for each role. In the film Concussion, it's clear the Dream Factory has put its finger in the breeze and is poised to crack-block the National Football League.

The movie is the damn-near-unbelievable-but-true story of how Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is caused by playing tackle football.

In the role of Dr. Omalu, the Nigerian immigrant doctor struggling to bring his research to the public, we have Will Smith, paragon of Hollywood virtue.

Smith has been nominated for best actor Oscars for playing a sainted version of Muhammad Ali (Ali/The Greatest) and a homeless father who achieves success by never giving up on his dreams (The Pursuit of Happyness). Smith is highly conscious of his role-model image, which is why he turned down the part of Django, the ex-slave in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained.

As Concussion details the ways in which the NFL attempted to discredit, threaten, and marginalize Will Smith's good doctor Omalu, in the role of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell we get to watch Luke Wilson. That would be the doughy party boy Luke Wilson, best known as the thirty-something guy who opened a frat house in Old School. If Will Smith is an avatar of earnest integrity, Luke Wilson, just by being Luke Wilson, symbolizes fecklessness. He is always in over his head--the guy with a weak chin who is about to be punched with a great deal of force.

Concussion tells a powerful story about a determined individual fighting to change a heartless corporate institution. It is a bittersweet tale of an underdog's partial triumph--like Rocky, except that the film opposes sports-induced brain injuries instead of celebrating them. The film works as entertainment. It works as politics. And it works as an audience-stirring indictment. All in all, that's dangerous news for the National Football League.

Thanks to Omalu's real-life battle, we now know that CTE is a neurological disorder that results from repeated blows to the frontal lobe of the brain. It is widely believed that CTE is the product not of big hits or freak plays but simply the every-play, normal actions of football. It can develop in kids playing youth football and, if not given time to heal, degenerates the brain, causing everything from early onset Alzheimer's to ALS. This knowledge is critical for all parents considering whether to let their kids play the game, as well as for every NFL player wondering whether to retire or hang on for one more season. And it is knowledge we might not even have were it not for Dr. Omalu.

Concussion is the NFL's worst nightmare. Hollywood, with its massive, global reach, is telling this story just as the league tries to make inroads internationally. The film will expand the debate about football far beyond the confines of the sports page and start a national if not international discussion.

The NFL is in damage-control mode, crafting a public relations campaign to tout new measures it claims make the game safe, and pushing the league's own highly dubious statistics. We will be seeing a lot of Roger Goodell on various news programs blathering about "concussion protocols" to make the league look as if it is ahead of the game and not simply reacting to the latest video image of a player stumbling like a punch-drunk fighter to the sidelines.

This strategy will almost certainly make the NFL look defensive, especially as Goodell's image blends into Luke Wilson. Meanwhile Dr. Bennet Omalu, a private man currently working as a professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of California-Davis, gets to be Will Smith.

It's the NFL versus Hollywood. That's a standoff the league may not win.

Dave Zirin is the host of the Edge of Sports Radio podcast, and the sports editor for The Nation. His latest book is Brazil's Dance with the Devil.

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