January 1, 2016

‘Concussion’ … God, science, and the NFL

 Will Smith is brilliant. He captures what it must’ve been like for Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born pathologist, who took on the National Football League over the brain damage being done to its players.

This story is both stunning and sickening. The threats and pressure directed at Dr. Omalu would likely cause most of us to stand down. But if your full name in your native language translates, “If you know you must come forth and speak,” then you may have been destined to tackle a multi-billion dollar industry that gets rich off of damaged players.

This is the story of the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, in NFL players. Dr. Omalu examined the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster after his suicide. Dr. Omalu estimated Webster sustained at least 70,000 blows to the head in his career. Other players’ brains were examined after their deaths. All had suffered from depression, impaired speech, memory loss, and uncontrollable bouts of rage.

The NFL did its best to discredit Dr. Omalu and suppress his findings. But science won out.

So did God. “I’m feeling God in you, Bennet,” says Dr. Omalu’s pastor at his Catholic parish, when the pathologist is asked to help resettle a Kenyan immigrant. And there are religious images throughout this film: crucifixes, a Bible on a nightstand, crosses on walls and necklaces.

And two characters make strong points about God and football. Dr. Omalu’s boss (Albert Brooks) warning him what he’s up against: “The NFL owns a day of the week, the day the church used to own.” And the former Steelers’ team doctor (Alec Baldwin) recalls a story he was told as a child: “In America God is number one (as he holds up two fingers) and football is number two (holding up one finger).”

‘Concussion’ is an inspiring film. It’s about doing the right thing to overcome obstacles that would seem insurmountable. It’s about the power of friendship, love and faith. No wonder they released this over the Christmas holiday.

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