By Ken Reed

I saw the new Will Smith movie, Concussion, last night.

It was better than I expected. For one, Will Smith is terrific in the role of Dr. Bennett Omalu, the pathologist who first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro Mike Webster. (Heavyweights Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks also are excellent in the movie.) In addition, the movie is a dramatic success, in the whistleblower vs. The Machine genre. Fans and non-fans alike will be enthralled by the movie from start to finish. I was also happy that the movie stayed very close to the true story of CTE in former NFL players. There was limited poetic license taken. This story didn’t need much. The facts are powerful enough. I was also pleasantly surprised that the film makes it clear that repetitive sub-concussive blows to the head represent as big a problem as concussions themselves.

This movie can make a difference in terms of how the country views football. It can also save lives and prevent a lot of misery on the part of young athletes and their families. At the very least, it can spur dramatic changes to the rules of football (as one doctor has proposed), and dispel myths like there is a magic helmet that will prevent concussions going forward.

“We must dispel the myth that the helmet protects the brain from injury,” according to Dr. Keith Pochick.

“It does not. It protects the scalp and skull such that a player may strike with his head, yet feel little to no pain. The forces of profound acceleration and deceleration are transmitted to the brain, which has no pain receptors of its own.”

But Concussion can only have this positive socio-cultural effect if people get out and watch it. Concussion got off to a slow start at the box office, finishing fifth on Christmas Day and seventh after the Christmas weekend. Movies like Daddy’s Home and the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks film outdrew Concussion.

I get it. One of the big reasons we love sport is that it provides a nice diversion from the issues and challenges of everyday life. We don’t want anything to endanger the game of football. It’s too much fun to watch (and for some, to play). The problem is, it’s very hazardous to the human brain. Even the NFL now admits that nearly a third of its players will suffer from the horrible effects of CTE at some point in their lives. Autopsies have revealed CTE in 87 of the 91 NFL players brains studied to this point.

As parents, coaches, fans, and citizens, we need to stop avoiding this brain trauma issue and face it head-on. For one thing, the game needs to be changed significantly to make it safer. Then, as citizens, we have to deal with tough questions like, “Should public schools, using taxpayer dollars, sponsor the game of football in institutions designed to enhance the brain, not endanger it?” As parents, we have to decide if the short and long-term risks of football (and other high-contact sports) are worth the benefits.

But the only hope we have of making good decisions on questions like these is to be fully educated on the issue, and that requires facing, not avoiding, the problem.

More people need to see this movie. A lot more. Smith was so good that he might win an Oscar for his performance. That could increase attendance for this movie. But we can’t count on that or wait for that possibility.

It took decades for the country to accept the dangers of smoking, despite a mountain of evidence. Let’s hope it doesn’t take decades for the country to realize that human beings’ brains — especially those of youth and high school players — weren’t designed to play a game requiring battering ram tendencies.

Get out and see Concussion — and drag family members, friends and neighbors with you.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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