The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

The new Will Smith film Concussion has a montage in which the lead character, a Pittsburgh coroner named Dr. Bennet Omalu, absorbs all the scientific knowledge about a subject. It lasts two minutes. Which is fine—the actual process of reading up scientific journals would make an unbearably tedious film. One of the articles we see Omalu leafing through in a flash says something like, “Long-Term Brain Damage in Boxers.”

Concussion happens to be about football, but of course the subject is news to no boxing fan. As I type this essay, I have a blackened right eye and smaller bruises and swellings around my left eye, cheek and nose, all of which are sensitive to touch, if not exactly “in pain.” The bloody mouth I had has subsided. This isn’t to brag. It would be considered very minor damage in the context of boxing or, to be more precise, sparring (I’ve never had a competitive fight).

At one point, my sparring partner, a pro fighter who holds back and still hasn’t lost a single one of our 90 or so rounds, checked himself even more, feeling a punch on his own fists as maybe having hit me too hard and noticing that my legs and coordination had just exhibited a second or two of what the sport’s old hands call being on “Queer Street.” In other words, he saw the possibility of brain damage. Minor but real. With 16-ounce gloves. With him fighting at less than 100 percent.

It’s common sense that violent sports like boxing and football endanger one’s health. There was a time when the public was largely unaware of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (more on CTE anon), but the general risk to participants’ bodies was obvious. Even so, the movie features crunching football hits, sports shows celebrating them, and a shocked Omalu acting as if he’d never seen such things. He’s not an American (he’s from Nigeria) so maybe he hadn’t. But he’s presented here as if he were the first person to notice a problem. This feeds into strengths and weaknesses of the film, a convincing portrayal of a too-innocent outsider (a kind of immigrant bildungsroman) that is also the kind of self-righteous “problem” film that inevitably gets me rooting for the other side.

This is a Will Smith movie but Bennet Omalu is a very un-Willian character in ways that go beyond Smith’s pretty good (to my ears) Nigerian accent. Smith’s persona is that of the quintessentially American, laid-back good guy. Omalu, the real-life person who can be seen in interviews with Smith promoting the film, is a driven, forward person with a messianic zeal. “Tell the truth!”, his character constantly berates people in Concussion.

Its best scene features Omalu and his wife Prema (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) sitting on the downtown banks of one of Pittsburgh’s three rivers talking about how they see America—as immigrants and, just as importantly, as Christians. Omalu had idealized it as place where God sent his favorite people. This is meant to resonate with an earlier conversation he had with a colleague, Dr. Julian Bailes, a polished Southerner played by Alec Baldwin, who tells him that when he was growing up in Louisiana, “God was first, and second was football.”

Prema responds to Omalu’s cosmology with a different and even sobering (“the less said, the better”) description of her first days in the United States. But her experience doesn’t cause her to turn against the country, instead leading her to see misfortune in Providential terms. Indeed, the most remarkable feature of Concussion is how suffused in religion it is for a movie whose main subject isn’t religion.

To be sure, a religious-conflict line appears in the trailer: “The NFL owns a day of the week; the one that used to belong to the church.” But in the movie itself, the theme is advanced through unremarked-on details such as décor. Omalu’s car has a crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror, his apartment has a cross, he has a Bible by his bedside table (even specified in gold leaf on the spine as a Catholic-approved translation).

Décor is easy and meaningless if that’s all there is, but it does set up the bigger religious stuff as playing truer than it might have otherwise. Early on we see Omalu in a Catholic church, and after the services the priest asks him if he can take in Prema, a fellow African immigrant who needs a place to stay. Not only do the two strangers not immediately tumble into the sack, there’s even a nice awkwardness in Omalu’s showing her around his apartment. Later, in the climactic scene, there is a pointed resemblance to a homily both in the set-up — earnest Omalu holding forth from behind a lectern — and in how it’s filmed, with an establishing shot from a choir-loft angle overlooking rows of seats and cutting to the audience’s reverent looks up at the lectern. There’s also even a (perhaps too explicit) resurrection.

Faith is behind what Omalu says and does. If a man sacramentalizes his car and home, it’s far more believable that as a pathologist, he’d take a sacramental view of his vocation by, for example, habitually talking to his cadavers—no, by talking to the persons whose bodies he is handling, assuring them that even in death, even in dismemberment for purposes of research, they’re not pieces of meat but souls to be handled with love, and with attention to the lives they lived, as gleaned from examination of their remains.

In another scene, Omalu yells at Bailes, a former concussion-skeptic who had been a doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers but has turned against the NFL, “You’re here for redemption. You’re using me to cleanse your sins”—rather than using language more normal for a 2015 Hollywood film, like, “You’re here to undo your past, to make things good again.” The insight into the man Omalu is made through the “oddness” of the theological language—for which Bailes calls him “a self-righteous bastard.”

Astonishingly, an argument from design makes its way into the dialogue, when Omalu explains to an Alzheimer’s researcher (played by Eddie Marsan) his theory that football head-knocking can damage the brain. Many animals apply force on their heads, he points out. Woodpeckers, for example, beat their beaks against wood hundreds of times in a row. But they do so while having their brains shielded by a system of natural “shock absorbers” absent from the human neck, skull, or brain. The implicit Thomistic teleology becomes explicit when Omalu concludes: “God did not intend us to play football.”

This prompts a “Leave God out of this” rebuke from the researcher. As that line and the “self-righteous bastard” line indicate, this wouldn’t be a Hollywood big-star commercial vehicle if there weren’t occasional assurances to the audience that all is still good in bohemia. (Moreover in this vein, the neuropathologist is shown testifying in a capital murder trial that the suspect is innocent, which introductory scene is meant to signal that Omalu is not that kind of religious nut.)

The first shock-absorberless body Omalu comes across is a retired Steelers center, Mike Webster, whose life after professional football had been a downward spiral of failure, dementia, amnesia, slurred speech and a wrecked body. He is shown in Concussion living out of his truck, zapping himself with a taser to get to sleep or huffing ammonia to get through the day. The focus on Webster, tragic figure that he is, points up what is centrally wrong with the movie. One can’t blame a Hollywood crowd-pleaser too much for flattening or simplifying history or whitewashing a real-life person; one can blame it for doing so in ways that (morally speaking) defame others, make the presented “history” tell a story too neatly.

As a Steelers fan myself, it pains me to says this, but the Steelers of that era had a reputation as steroid users, partially based on Webster’s big bare arms. This was a charge Webster didn’t emphatically deny (they were legal at the time, he said) but to which the film never even alludes. American pro athletes of that era were often prescribed edge-inducing amphetamines and dangerous pain-killers. By the time of his death, Webster had a body that was wrecked in a way that was disastrously thorough.

The point of this is not to blame the victim. Not at all. Webster had lost his hard-earned money and his marriage. Is it the case that CTE and its effects on brain function can lead to these things? Of course, we now know. But it is also the case that, even without CTE, pro athletes (even in non-contact sports) can ruin their post-career lives with this pattern of behavior. We also know they often have personalities unsuited to or untrained for “civilian” life, and sometimes commit crimes or abuse drugs or their families. This pattern can result from simple character issues even today. And in an era when CTE was not a scientific term, it was not denialism to be unconvinced that Webster’s death scientifically proved something beyond what common sense about violent sports and the warrior-athlete ethos suggested.

And here emerges the film’s Achilles heel: its attempts to be Erin Brockovich (2000), attempts that are supported neither by the historical record nor even really by what we see on the screen. This portrayal of Omalu, the scientific pioneer—a Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) but with muscles—also portrays the NFL as a corporate cover-up villain (making it The Insider, Michael Mann’s 1999 drama about the tobacco industry, but with helmets). I call bovine excrement on this. Pasteur made discoveries as a scientist precisely because the French Academy was not covering up the germ theory or lying to people about the existence of anthrax or rabies.

Furthermore, and to consider boxing once again, dementia pugilistica (which is more or less what CTE is) had been denoted by the folk-wisdom term “punch-drunk” for decades before it could be considered proven. The Golden Era boxing movies usually had the “old punchy guy” as a stock character, and sad real-life cases of even great fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Pep were quite familiar to fans. But while scholars had noted the punch-drunk phenomenon as early as the 1920s, just a few decades after gloved fighting became the norm, dementia pugilistica couldn’t really be scientifically established until the 1970s, thanks to improvements in brain examination techniques, both in-vivo and post-mortem. Its application to football simply came later, and it’s now even starting to hit soccer (all those headed-in crosses).

Such easy recourse to the tobacco-industry model is a pernicious development, for it erases the category of legitimate scientific doubt. All Alec Baldwin’s Dr. Bailes has to pronounce is: “The league has known and kept everyone in the dark.” Yet it’s a pronouncement for which the evidence is thin at best, one that isn’t even supported by League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, a 2013 documentary aired on PBS’s Frontline. There is no doubt that the NFL self-servingly denied Omalu’s studies; that doesn’t mean, though, that there weren’t legitimate scientific doubts about them (related to sample size, selection bias, the particulars of Mike Webster’s life, and the impossibility of testing for this disease while a person is alive—a problem that still exists, albeit maybe not for long).

The cumulative effect is that our hero’s repeated admonition “Tell the truth!” ends up equating skepticism with lying or, to use the term we now see so often, denial, as in denying the Holocaust.

Nor does the movie pay serious attention to the major reason the NFL might not embrace every incomplete study to come down the pike: tort liability. True enough, it’s not Concussion’s fault that a demagogic lawmaker like Linda Sanchez (D-CA) accused the NFL of behaving like Big Tobacco. It is its fault, though, that that footage shows up in the triumphant closing montage. And it is its fault for having a drunken Dr. Bailes deliver the (scientifically worthless if emotionally persuasive) point that the NFL commissioner’s law firm also represented tobacco companies.

Then there’s the overplaying of how far the Power and Money forces will go to punish a courageous crusader. The neuropathologist is told “the NFL will destroy you and attack you.” What we see is that the league resists Omalu’s conclusions and snubs him at a conference. That’s not exactly Galileo.

Then there are the absurdities. There’s an implication that the NFL has the FBI on speed dial — Omalu’s supervisor in the pathology department (played by Albert Brooks) is arrested, presumably to get to Omalu. But we learn in a title card that the charges were all dropped, as if somehow an institution can be so powerful as to control the FBI but somehow can’t rig a jury or a prosecutor. And worst of all, in a sequence that strains for pathos, Omalu’s pregnant wife is convinced that she is being followed by another car as she drives through Pittsburgh. The “stalking” car doesn’t commit any illegal act. But the next time we see her, she is in the hospital and loses the baby—no doubt from the anxiety produced by intimidation from “Them.”

The film’s omissions are telling too, as any viewer of League of Denial will pick up. One is the NFL’s acknowledgment that football had debilitated a still-living Mike Webster before the film’s action begins. You would not guess from watching Concussion that, while alive, Webster filed a disability case under the league’s collective bargaining agreement in the course of which, according to League of Denial, the NFL’s medical teams declared that football had caused head injuries that left Webster totally disabled. You’d barely even get a sense that such a disability system even existed. Unmentioned or glossed over as well are the NFL’s funding of traumatic encephalopathy research, the NFL’s concussion protocols, rule changes that have taken place at all levels of the sport, similar acts by the much less powerful National Hockey League, and the obvious (self-) interest in the issue shown by the NFL Players Association.

Was the NFL skeptical about CTE? Yes. Did it note complicating life factors in Mike Webster’s case? Again, yes. But did it deny that football can be physically ruinous, either generally or in the case of Mike Webster? Absolutely not. The film, instead of giving us any sense of what the NFL’s criticisms of the science were, just depicts warnings that ‘They” are going to destroy you. Again . . . the common sense of the period makes for a much more complicated picture than what appears in Concussion.