‘Concussion’ film shows need for change in contact sports

Alec Baldwin stars as Dr. Julian Bailes and Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu in Columbia Pictures' “Concussion.”
Alec Baldwin stars as Dr. Julian Bailes and Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu in Columbia Pictures' “Concussion.” Columbia Pictures

Major movies often feature make-believe violence. Now comes a movie about the long-term effects of real blows to the head. It should provoke a broader discussion about what some sports are doing to the brains of players – from the gladiator sports at the professional level to children playing contact sports.

The film “Concussion” opened on Christmas Day. It tells the story of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) as he connects a debilitating buildup of plaque he finds in the brains of deceased football players to the effects of repeated concussions. He calls the condition – which leads to personality swings, dementia and sometimes suicide – chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Omalu’s findings met denials and resistance from the National Football League. But as the evidence and the list of former player plaintiffs grew, the NFL acknowledged the problem and settled a lawsuit brought by former players and has introduced protocols to better identify and treat concussions.

But the settlement and the changes are hardly the end of the matter. Indeed, findings by Omalu suggest the only way to avoid the high hazard of brain injury is to eliminate football as we know it. Omalu told Time magazine that based on the cohort of professional players he has studied, “I think over 90 percent of American football players suffer from this disease.”

The disease is not always obvious, but it is there, he told Time: “I meet with retired football players. Some are well-dressed, some are well-spoken, but when you talk to them personally they will admit to you that they are having problems.”

Despite Omalu’s findings and the NFL’s concessions, resistance still exists in North America’s other high-contact professional league, the National Hockey League. The NHL has adopted concussion protocols and has changed its rules to reduce some high-speed collisions, but it continues to resist claims that its earlier lack of protections injured the brains of players, and the NHL commissioner says a link between blows to the head and CTE is still not confirmed. Commissioner Gary Bettman said in June: “From a medical science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one necessarily leads to the other.”

Meanwhile, Bettman said the NHL is “vigorously defending” lawsuits related to head injuries.

The NHL should concede its negligence and do all it can to help former players disabled by CTE. The NFL has taken commendable action, but the size of its settlement falls short of the need and is but a small fraction of its huge revenues.

The movie “Concussion” will help pressure professional sports that involve blows to the head – including boxing, lacrosse, soccer and martial arts – to further change their rules and compensate those hurt by a lack of protection. The movie could also further the national conversation among parents about what sports their children should play and at what age they should engage in contact sports, if at all.

“Concussion” is only a movie, but what Omalu found – and some still resist seeing – is as real as a blow to the head.