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'Concussion' director reveals the cold business side of the NFL

Pras Subramanian

It was the story that wouldn't go away, until it couldn't be ignored any longer. The NFL's concussion scandal rocked the sport, and led to its commissioner testifying in front of Congress. While the science is now coming to the fore, and a legal settlement with the players is in the works, the story of how everything unfolded is now finally being told in the new film, Concussion.

Will Smith in Concussion
Will Smith in Concussion

As a former journalist, the film's director, Peter Landesman was drawn to the story through the eyes of the real-life protaganonist, Dr. Bennett Omalu - played by Will Smith in the film.

“The story of Bennett is really one of the most pure whistleblower tales have ever found,” Landesman says in the attached video. “Bennett was really about pure science, he was a Nigerian immigrant pathologist working in Pittsburgh and ended up with the body of one the most famous football players the Pittsburgh Steelers ever produced in his lab, and he just wanted to solve the riddle of why he died.”

What Omalu ended up doing was discovering a disease - CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, that is leading to an understanding of what's happening to football players, and mental illness triggered by physical injury to the brain. The bombshell release of this new data and knowledge led to blowback from the NFL, something that wasn’t entirely surprising.

The NFL is a huge business, with anywhere from $9 to 10 billion in yearly revenue. As many of have pointed out, the NFL ‘owns’ a day of the week for many Americans, and any perceived threat to the business model was taken very seriously. With regards to Concussion, there were reports the big broadcasters may not show commercials for the film. Ultimately that did not come to pass, but it underlies the NFL's influence given the billion dollar contracts between the league the nation’s biggest broadcasters.

To Landesman, the power of the NFL is not surprising. “[The NFL has] become the largest spectacle, maybe the history of man to be honest with you, in many ways not just the business but also as part of the cultural fabric of this country,” Landesman observes. “And then there's the NFL which is a massive corporation, versus the game of the players - which are completely separate things. IBM, Apple, Exxon the NFL -  they are about the bottom line, but the game is beautiful and graceful and powerful and human beings play it - fallible, frail humans who get hurt and injured and die.”

So the biq question most observers, and even the government has been asking, is what did the NFL know about concussions, and what was the extent of the NFL's concussion research. Landesman is blunt about the NFL’s complicity in covering this up. “The NFL knew about this problem for about twenty years,” he notes. “They didn't really understand the disease, that was Bennett’s discovery, but they did understand these players are permanently and irrevocably damaged by these concussions, and sending backers back into games after having received a concussion, it’s an incredibly injudicious act.”

When asked whether his movie would dissuade kids and young adults from playing football, Landesman did not mince his words. “I wouldn't let my children play football,” he says, and he notes he’s not the only parent giving football a wary eye. “I can tell you Pop Warner football is drastically, drastically reduced - I've heard a number of upwards to 35%.”

And that could be mean some trouble for the sport if it can’t find players who would be willing to play the game. Landesman does agree that the sport can be beautiful too, showing grace in action and the drama that sometimes sports only can provide. But the knock on effects of younger players leaving the game could be severe. “If you extrapolate that forward to the pipeline, a six year old might not play Pop Warner, today he's not going to be playing when he's 14, or 18, or 25,” he says. “So now John Elway might be a center fielder for the Yankees instead of the quarterback for the Denver Broncos.”

Concussion will be in theaters this Christmas Day.