Late this past Friday, when a lot of people had already left work early for the Thanksgiving holiday, a story hit that Frank Gifford had suffered from the effects of CTE – a crippling brain disease suffered by mostly retired professional football players after long careers of sustained impacts to the head. Gifford did not die from the effects of CTE – as opposed to, say, Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who took his own life before he could be inducted — so it’s yet to be seen what kind of impact this story will have. But Gifford was a well-known media personality – a tough guy and a smart guy – and yet even he suffered from the effects of CTE.
I’ve been paying closer attention to this all since seeing Concussion, the new film starring Will Smith that will open on December 25. Not because I didn’t think this was a serious issue, but more because I just understand it all a lot more. If nothing else, Concussion does a pretty wonderful job of explaining what exactly CTE is (which stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and the effects this has on an individual. And that CTE can be physically seen. This isn’t, “Oh, he has some of the symptoms, so maybe this is it,” it can actually be seen in the brain tissue. Unfortunately, it can only be seen after someone has passed away – parts of the brain has to be physically observed under a microscope – and this is the test that Gifford had posthumously performed.
There’s a great scene in Concussion when Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) – the doctor credited with first discovering CTE – is trying to explain his findings to a much better-known and revered colleague. If this colleague signs off on a study, it ensures that it will a) get attention and b) be taken seriously. As Omalu is explaining what he’s found, he mentions that while a woodpecker is pecking, the bird’s tongue will go back into its own throat, wrapping itself around the brain to provide insulation and support. Other animals that use their heads (rams, for example) have similar built-in safety features. Human beings have none.
I’m writing this on a Monday. Yesterday, Sunday, I spent about seven hours watching football. I grew up in St. Louis and loved the pitiful Cardinals until they moved to Phoenix. My dad’s job took us to Kansas City, so I became a Chiefs fan. I now live in New York, and yesterday I went to a local pub for the specific reason of watching the Chiefs play the Buffalo Bills. Baseball had always been my favorite sport, but I can no longer watch a game between two teams I don’t care about. (There’s no way I’m sitting down to watch an August game between the Padres and the Marlins.) But I can watch any NFL game. It is, without question, my favorite sport to watch. I love the NFL. I also think the NFL should probably be banned. Or, at the very least, have its rules completely restructured in an effort to prevent head injuries – much, much further than what the league has done already.
I played football until I was in fifth grade. It seemed normal then. There is no way I would ever let a hypothetical child of mine ever play football. Not a chance. More and more parents are feeling this way.
When I lived in Kansas City, Hall of Fame center Mike Webster played his last two seasons there. The Chiefs weren’t particularly that good, but it was a big deal that a player from those famous 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers teams was now on the Chiefs. We’d go to Arrowhead Stadium and I’d watch Webster help make holes for running back Christian Okoye. It was great. What a fun time. Thirteen years later, Webster was living in a pickup truck, had pulled his teeth out and superglued them back in, and was dead at the age of 50. Webster was the first person diagnosed with CTE.
Webster (played by David Morse) plays a huge role in Concussion. Actually, it’s startling at first how many real life, very familiar names are portrayed in Concussion: Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters, and Dave Duerson are all present (and all have died in real life).
In September, The New York Times published emails from the Sony hack that insinuate that the film was cut to appease the NFL. The piece says:
Another email on Aug. 1, 2014, said some “unflattering moments for the N.F.L.” were deleted or changed, while in another note on July 30, 2014, a top Sony lawyer is said to have taken “most of the bite” out of the film “for legal reasons with the N.F.L. and that it was not a balance issue.” Other emails in September 2014 discuss an aborted effort to reach out to the N.F.L.
Look, I don’t know exactly what was removed, but considering how bad Concussion makes the NFL look, the only thing I can think of is maybe there’s a scene in which Will Smith is holding his middle finger up to the camera, saying, “Fuck you, NFL,” and someone thought, “Maybe that’s a little too far.” The NFL comes off looking terrible in this movie. Luke Wilson (!) plays NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as a bumbling fool. Concussion portrays the NFL as an almost mafia, and goes so far to insinuate that they’d be willing to take people out by any means necessary to shut them up. A friend of mine, who hates sports and especially hates football, came out of Concussion feeling sorry for the NFL.
Indirectly, the film’s strong stance against the NFL leads to the film’s biggest weakness: We spend a good amount of time on Omalu’s personal life so that we see how the NFL’s pressure affected his marriage. Which, I get, but when the film is focusing on Omalu’s actual fight with the NFL, it’s exhilarating, when we get bogged down in his domestic issues, it does drag a bit.
Regardless, every NFL fan should see Concussion. I still watch the games. I can’t help it; I’m addicted. Until they are physically not available anymore, I will continue to watch. (With as much money that’s involved, that will be a very long time.) But I watch differently now.
While watching the Kansas City Chiefs game yesterday, center Mitch Morse left the game with a concussion. He plays the same position Mike Webster played. In the past, I used to just hope a player could return to the game as soon as possible. Now I wonder what Morse will be like 30 years from now. Now, I kind of hope he doesn’t come back and just decides to do something else with his life. Now, I keep wondering why I keep watching.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.