Concussion stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennett Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist who brought the issue of brain damage in retired NFL players to the forefront. The real-life story began to unfold in September 2002 when Omalu, then at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was assigned to perform an autopsy on the body of Mike Webster. Known as “Iron Mike,” Webster was a beloved former professional bowler for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the anchor of a front row that helped the team win four Super Bowls. however, his mental health deteriorated to the point of ranting at strangers and tasering himself, until he died of a heart attack at age 50.
Omalu knew nothing about football, but he had heard about webster’s death on the news and was curious what the former player’s brain would reveal about his behavior. after taking the brain home and paying out of pocket to have it carefully dissected and stained, he discovered the presence of tau proteins, which alter mood and cognitive function by accumulating. It was similar to the findings in the brains of deceased boxers, but clearly in a category of its own, which is why Omalu coined the condition “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” or CTE. He submitted an article, explaining his discovery and his belief that Webster’s problems were the result of repeated blows to the head during his playing career, to the prestigious medical journal Neurosurgery.
nfl believed omalu study had ‘serious flaws’
omalu naively believed that the nfl would be receptive to a study revealing how the sport was endangering the mental health of its participants. Instead, after the article appeared in the July 2005 issue of Neurosurgery, the response was a letter to the editor from three members of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee, who they pointed out “serious flaws” in the study and demanded an official review. retraction.
Omalu went ahead with examining a second brain, from another retired soccer player named Terry Long. Like Webster, he had long exhibited distressing behavior after his retirement, ultimately committing suicide at age 45 by drinking antifreeze. Omalu discovered the same accumulation of tau proteins (another cte case) and sent a second paper to neurosurgery.
an article published in ‘gq’ was the turning point
By this point, the general press had picked up on the cte concept, and the nfl mtbi responded again by publicly vilifying omalu and his research. however, examinations of more former soccer players confirmed his initial findings and also garnered support from influential allies such as dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at University Hospitals of West Virginia and former team physician for the Steelers.
The turning point came with an article by Jeanne Marie Laskas in the September 2009 issue of GQ, detailing Omalu’s discovery of CTE and the NFL’s continued denial of its existence. soon after, the league released the results of a study that found its former players suffered from memory-related illness at a higher rate than the normal population, its first public admission that there might be a problem.
former players sought legal action against the nfl
nfl commissioner roger goodell was later called to testify before a house judiciary committee in october 2009 about safety measures, and stricter guidelines were put in place in the professional game to limit injuries in the head. Still, dozens of former players took legal action against the NFL in 2011, claiming the league had failed to adequately warn and protect them. As of the summer of 2015, more than 5,000 former players were involved in a consolidated lawsuit, with a $765 million settlement figure deemed insufficient by a judge.
Meanwhile, Hollywood director/producer Ridley Scott has enlisted former investigative journalist Peter Landesman to write and direct a film based on Laskas’ GQ article. He also recruited Smith, the kind of star on the list who would draw attention to the project. With Sony on board as the film’s distributor, filming began in October 2014.
leaked emails showed the nfl asking sony to tone down the movie
in september 2015, a level of grim intrigue was added when a new york times article cited emails from the previous year’s sony hack as evidence that the studio had given in to nfl demands to tone it down of the movie. landesman adamantly denied capitulating to the nfl, his stance was backed up by respected sportscaster bob costas, who released a statement saying, “i’ve seen the movie. as someone who’s followed and commented on this topic, it doesn’t seem like they took a lot of punches out of me “.
The NFL may never fully admit its guilt for the suffering of its former players, but with its continuing changes to concussion guidelines and increased legal liabilities, some progress has undeniably been made. In addition, it is clear that vindication has come from Omalu, now the Chief Medical Examiner for San Joaquin County, California, and a professor in the Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UC Davis. With the release of Concussion, viewers will learn more about his fight to be heard, more than 13 years after Webster’s brain changed the course of his life.