Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Truth about the movie "Concussion."

"The truth doesn't have a side." —Dr. Bennet Omalu

I wish I had the words of Dr. Omalu in my arsenal for when I taught the Foundations of Ethics: Morality and Justice. Though I am not teaching Ethics for the first time in 12 years, the importance of truth and its very nature underscores every course an educator must teach. We seek to bring it to students. It is also what this medical doctor—a pathologist turned coroner born in Nigeria sought to bring to the NFL. And his revelation of truth is the subject of the new movie "Concussion."

To be honest, I was skeptical of how Hollywood might portray the story. To a large degree, I was familiar with the story of Concussion because in the summer of 2014, I read the book "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussion and the Battle for Truth." I read it because the authors—Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, who are also investigative reporters and brothers spoke at a lunch at the Olympic Club downtown. I'm not sure I would have finished it otherwise. It was tremendously technical, both scientifically and politically. It's far from a "feel good" story, but I knew it was an important one. Teaching Ethics, I also know we don't call it the "ugly truth" for nothing. 

As written in "Will Smith shines a light on the dark side of the sport he loves," the cover story for the December 20, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated, 

A desire to disseminate the truth usually ranks far down the list of Hollywood's motivations. It's also worth adding that almost all of the major studios have lucrative NFL connections.
Fortunately, I found myself checking the boxes as I watched the 2 hour film. Indeed, I would have passed the reading check quiz on "League of Denial" by watching Will Smith's latest film.

Screenwriter and director Peter Landesman would expect nothing less. He said, "this movie, like all movies based on nonfiction stories—if we're smart and if we care—goes through a strong vetting process to be sure we tell the best, most truthful, most impactful version of the story." This story, was based on an article written by Jeanne Marie Laskas for GQ magazine, in 2009. See below.

Watching Concussion and then reading the SI piece by Ben Reiter confirmed what I left the movie theater believing to be true. The death by suicide of former Chicago Bears Dave Duerson was the watershed moment—the linchpin—whereby the National Football League had to confront a problem that wasn't going away. The League could no longer be one of denial. I wrote about him in a blog tribute in February 2011: A Loss in the (Notre Dame) Family. It was shared on Notre Dame magazine's website. Although a tragic story, I believe it is one of the more important postings I have written. I carried those thoughts with me to the movie screen as I watched Duerson's own struggle lead to his demise.

Anyone who chooses to watch Concussion will leave with more questions than answers. Playing golf today, a friend asked if high school football will be around in 30 years. I did not hesitate to answer "yes." He retorted with "how many kids died from playing football last year." He told me the number is seven or eight. The only thing I could say in response is "how many boys are alive because of football." 

I know a significant number of parents who are very passionate about their sons not playing football; I do believe it is a personal and important decision. My only hope is that they are as passionate about their views on the usage of drugs and alcohol for their teens. I mean that.
Ben Reiter writes, the NFL hopes that "the movie offers an opportunity to publicly talk about player health and safety and what the league's doing to pursue the goals that we've set, then we welcome the conversation." It does and it should. I guess I'm used to organizations with money and power covering things up. In this case, the NFL should reclaim the words that emblazon their glass doors on their Park Avenue office in New York City. The league promotes: RESPECT—INTEGRITY—RESPONSIBILITY TO TEAM—RESILIENCY. Those ideals must fuel a commitment to learn more, be transparent, acknowledge the danger and ameliorate the risk.

I think every person who is hungry for the truth ought to find it. Some good sources on this particular subject include:
You may wonder why we care. Why do we spend so much of our time, money and energy on a game like football? Why are we so passionate about our home teams and make heroes out of its players? Because as the movie says "It's a mindless, violent game. And then it's Shakespeare."

I paused when I heard those words. We often do when we hear and realize the truth. And remember—it doesn't have a side.

Photo Credits
Dr Omalou
League of Denial
Will Smith

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