If you like a little sports drama during the holiday season — and don't feel like watching another Rocky movie — then you may want to catch a showing of Concussion, due out Christmas Day. Starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist who brought the issue of brain damage in retired NFL players to the forefront, Concussion is the sort of underdog-stares-down-corporate-behemoth feature that reliably manages to stir up some awards buzz.
The true-life story began unfolding in September 2002 when Omalu, then with 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 Pro Bowler with Pittsburgh Steelers, the anchor of a front line that helped the team win four Super Bowls. However, his mental health deteriorated to the point where he was ranting at strangers and zapping himself with a Taser gun, until his death from a heart attack at age 50.
Omalu knew nothing about football but had heard about Webster's death on the news, and was curious as to what the ex-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 impair moods and cognitive function upon accumulation. It was similar to findings in the brains of deceased boxers but clearly in a category of its own, so Omalu coined the condition "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy," or CTE. He submitted a paper, explaining his discovery and belief that Webster's troubles were the result of repeated head blows from his playing career, to the prestigious medical journal Neurosurgery.
Omalu naively believed that the NFL would be receptive to a study that revealed how the sport was endangering the mental health of its participants. Instead, after the paper 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 committee (MTBI), which noted "serious flaws" in the study and demanded an official retraction.
Omalu pressed forward with examination of a second brain, of another retired football player named Terry Long. Like Webster, Long had exhibited distressing behavior after his retirement, eventually killing himself at age 45 by drinking antifreeze. Omalu discovered the same buildup of tau proteins — another case of CTE — and submitted a second paper to Neurosurgery.
By this point, the general press had caught wind of the concept of CTE, and the NFL's MTBI again responded by publicly vilifying Omalu and his research. However, examinations of more ex-football players confirmed his initial findings, and also drew the support of influential allies like Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at West Virginia University Hospitals and a former Steelers team doctor.
The tipping point came with an article by Jeanne Marie Laskas in a September 2009 issue of GQ, which detailed Omalu's discovery of CTE and the NFL's continued denial of its existence. Shortly afterward, the league revealed the results of a study that determined its former players were suffering from memory-related diseases at a higher rate than the normal population, its first public admission that maybe there was a problem.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was subsequently hauled in to testify before a House Judiciary Committee in October 2009 about safety measures, and stricter guidelines were established in the pro game to limit head injuries. Still, dozens of former players embarked on legal action against the NFL in 2011, claiming that 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 settlement figure of $765 million deemed insufficient by a judge.
In the meantime, Hollywood director and producer Ridley Scott enlisted former investigative journalist Peter Landesman to write and direct a movie based on Laskas's GQ article. He also recruited Smith, the sort of A-list star who would draw attention to the project. With Sony on board as the film's distributor, shooting began in October 2014.
In September 2015, a level of shadowy intrigue was added when a New York Times article cited emails from the previous year's Sony hack as evidence that the studio had bowed to the NFL's demands to soften the tone of the movie. Landesman steadfastly denied capitulating to the NFL, his stance backed by respected sportscaster Bob Costas, who issued a statement that read, "I have seen the movie. As one who has followed, and commented on, this issue, it doesn't appear to me many punches were pulled."
The NFL may never fully fess up to its culpability in the suffering of its former players, but with its continuing changes to concussion guidelines and mounting legal liabilities, it's undeniable that some progress has been made. Furthermore, it's clear that vindication has come for Omalu, now chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California, and a professor in the UC Davis Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. With the release of Concussion, viewers will learn more about his fight to be heard, more than 13 years after Mike Webster's brain changed the course of his life.