Merry Christmas, Mr. Commissioner. Enjoy your lump of coal.
Even though the holiday is nearly four months off, we already know what Roger Goodell will find under his tree on Christmas Day. It’s a movie scheduled for release that morning based on a true story and bluntly titled “Concussion.” It could do for the NFL what “The Insider” did for Big Tobacco and “Erin Brockovich” did for big energy companies.
In a trailer released earlier this week, Will Smith, one of the most bankable stars in show business, portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu. He’s a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who identified a degenerative disease in football players known as CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and is stunned to find the league trying to discredit his research at every turn.
That comes as little surprise to Omalu’s mentor and colleague, played by Albert Brooks. He tells Omalu: “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week.”
Indeed. The NFL has never been more profitable or popular in terms of TV ratings, and the film describes the sometimes-lethal, long-term implications of repeated blows to the head chronicled several times before — in magazines, books and documentaries, as well as court depositions. We already know how it turns out.
But distilling all those statistics and case studies into a dramatic battle of good vs. evil will make it that much tougher to ever root for Goodell and his enablers again.
This is most of the same crew, after all, that installed Dr. Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist, as the longtime chairman of the league’s “Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee” and didn’t know — or else didn’t care — how casually he dismissed all the data linking CTE to dementia and a host of other dangers.
It’s the same crew that’s agreed to pay more than $900 million to settle a concussion lawsuit by former players, yet still stages “Football Safety Clinics for Moms,” trying to convince parents to let their kids play football in the face of mounting evidence that players as young as 7 suffer hits to the head every bit as traumatic as those suffered by high school and adult players.
Like Omalu, Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, has been pushing back against the league’s public-relations blitz for years. Three years ago, around the time researchers found CTE in 49 of the 50 brains of deceased NFL players they autopsied, he co-authored a book laying out the case for kids to delay playing contact sports like tackle football and hockey before age 14. He was confident that with enough information, parents would come around.
“They haven’t understood the dangers their kids are being subjected to,” he said at the time. “Once they do — and it won’t happen in weeks, or months, maybe even years — they’ll demand changes.”
“Concussion” has the chance to speed up the timeline. It’s was made by Sony Pictures, which unlike several other Hollywood studios (Disney, Fox and Universal) doesn’t have direct ties to the NFL and won’t worry about retribution. It will spend plenty to promote the film and the timing couldn’t be more fortuitous.
In addition to the box-office power of its stars — besides Smith and Brooks, it features Paul Reiser (as Pellman) and Luke Wilson (as Goodell) — Sony will release it on Christmas Day with Oscar consideration in mind and hoping to take advantage of a holiday crowd. More to the point, instead of bumping up against the start of the NFL season, it will hit theaters at a juncture when the injuries and who-knows-how many concussions are piling up.
Just as important, it will name real people and show real NFL teams.
“There’s no way to tell the story without showing real football, without showing real football players, to get the texture and the understanding and the tremendous violence inside the game,” director Peter Landesman said in an interview earlier this week. “So it became an imperative for us to be able to do it. What I was told by the studio was, ‘You’re protected. We’re behind you. This will be fine.’”
Landesman said in another interview that he didn’t set out to make an “anti-football” film. But as far as the NFL’s reaction, he added, “I don’t really care. Their feelings are not my concern. ...
“As long as the movie does its job — it entertains, it thrills and it informs and people walk away from watching this film knowing something new and having the experience of being inside the shoes of a heroic man, that’s the only thing I care about. I can’t worry about the consequences of what I do,” he added, “that’s not my job.”
Your move, commissioner.