Review: Concussion (the movie)

Overall I felt that the movie did a pretty good job of highlighting some of the most severe examples of what could happen as a result of ongoing head trauma and potentially as a result of CTE.  Obviously, I am too close to the issue and not really part of the “target market” so maybe my expectations are a bit off.

I am not sure that the movie needed the love story element with Omalu but it seemed that they wanted to use that as a way to tie the story together and humanize Omalu a bit more.  I give incredible praise to Omalu for being willing to stand up to the NFL and the football establishment and fight on this issue.  His work laid the foundation for the great increase in concussion awareness over the past 5 years.  Despite being right and despite his success, he was demonized by many and I am not sure that the depth of the attacks on him was portrayed in the movie.

I think the movie missed a few big opportunities:

First, for most people that have not been around this discussion, stating that a concussion occurs at “60 Gs of force” is far too abstract.  They would have been better served to put in a few small clips from hits that were estimated at 60 Gs and then show them in comparison to clips that were part of the “Jacked Up” segment, all of which are probably well over 100 Gs of force.  I think most people would be surprised by how “minor” a 60 G hit looks in comparison to what they are expecting

Second, they took the extreme cases of Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin S. (I am not even going to try to spell that name here without Google).  It is likely that all 3 of those players suffered significantly due to the head trauma and they did find evidence of CTE.  But those are hardly clean comparisons because that was also the midst of the steroid era and the potential of steroid rage and other drug implications is significant.  The movie conveniently ignored all of that as it focused just on the CTE issues (which should not be minimized, nor should you read this paragraph to mean that they are not significant contributing factors to their mental states).

Third, I think that the failure to compare the current state of concussion management and the way players are being handled post concussion now was disappointing.  It leaves the viewer with the impression that anyone playing football WILL SUFFER the horrendous effects that were highlighted in the movie.  Though people have mocked Roger Goodell saying the game is safer than it has ever been, that is probably true.  Players are removed after concussions and monitored closely.  Players who now miss 3-4 games would have been put right back on the field.  The number of hits players suffer in practice is significantly reduced starting from youth football to high school to college and to the NFL (or other pro league).  The cumulative effect of reduced hitting in practice means thousands of hits fewer for any of today’s players.

Finally, most notably, the party who is tasked with the primary responsibility for protecting the interests of the players gets off without any mention.  The NFLPA is the group that should bear MUCH MORE of the anger and frustration from the players than the NFL. The NFLPA has the resources and interest to fight back and question what is going on with the NFL. It never did.  I think it will go down as one of the great failures of Gene Upshaw, former Executive Director of the NFLPA.  I am not sure how the NFLPA has stayed out of the limelight so long, but it also came out with little criticism in PBS Frontline’s “League of Denial”.  If you haven’t watched that and are interest in this topic, it has much more details.

A few other observations:

1. Joseph Maroon comes across as arrogant and fighting against the science.  My favorite was the line of Omalu when he said that “history will laught at those that deny” and “tell the truth”.

2. Elliott Pelman, who chaired the NFL committee on the traumatic brain injuries for many years was a Rhumatologist. This was rightly pointed out in the movie but this movie did not highlight many of his other outrageious statements and proclamations in the offical reports that were issued.

3. Julian Bailes continues to be heavily involved in concussion related matters.  My favorite line of his was when he told Omalu “You are in trouble, but you are not wrong.”

4. The NFL deserves plenty of criticism for not picking up this issue earlier, and certainly for trying to mask findings that had the potential to hurt the game.  The NFL also certainly deserves flack for trying to bury the issue at the conference and presentation and prevent Omalu from presenting his findings. What everyone needs to remember, however, is that NOBODY ELSE was taking any different action either.  The NHL, MLB, the general medical community etc. were all way behind the times.  In fact, if you look at it, the NFL has actually been at the forefront of dealing with this issue (as it is in many health related issues such as drugs, PEDs, etc).  The general medical community still seems to be well behind the sports community in dealing with concussion issues.

5. Dave Duerson came out looking very bad in the movie.  The movie did not really give any background on him but having met him and had some other interactions, there are several important facts that were omitted.  First, he was removed from Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees because of a domestic violence charge which occurred while he was in South Bend for a trustees meeting.  He was on many other board, belonged to Medinah Country Club and was struggling to uphold his image.  He had a business that ran into significant financial difficulties and he was being investigated and sued on many levels relating to the collapse of his primary business (a meat packing plant that had contracts with McDonalds).  Again, not to minimize the impact that CTE may have had on him or his behavior (or business dealings), but these other issues could have been significant in his decision to take his own life.  Sadly, I had the opportunity to present at an event sponsored by an organization run by one of his closest friends. This friend was the first person to get to the body and cleaned up before the family got there. I got to see the actual photos he took of the bed, blood soaked sheets and the room.

6. Ira Casson, another one of the medical professionals on the NFL’s committees looked utterly ignorant with his blanket proclamations that there was no link to concussions or head trauma.

7. Junior Seau was anothe player that had tried to commit suicide on a few other occasions, before he was successful.

8. Omalu’s boss who was indicted is also a good reminder of the federal government that can choose to indict almost anyone for almost anything if you have any dealings with federal agencies or funding.  I don’t know the whole story in that case but would be interested to read more if anyone has the details.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions, many of which cannot be answered until we can identify CTE in living people.  I will make a list of these questions for next time.

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