Friday, January 8, 2016

Misplaced emotion?

Concussion, the film about the NFL’s efforts to suppress research indicating that professional football players were at risk of severe dementia, breaks no new news. But what this sturdily-built dramatization might accomplish is to give a wide audience second thoughts about encouraging their kids to play the sport. The most inspired scene in this film is what I regard as football porn: helmet hit, after helmet hit, after helmet hit, accompanied by the rapturous, almost orgasmic, shouts of announcers.
Unlike with baseball, the sport I most love, my relationship with football is complicated. It seems plausible that subtle head trauma during seven years of organized football is to blame for my current condition. And, long before I experienced the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, I’d become jaded about America’s most popular sport. For a couple of seasons around the turn of the millennium, I watched no football at all—not even the Super Bowl. That changed during the 2001 season, when the Patriots came out of nowhere to win their first of four championships.
Concussion is a somber movie, befitting a film whose pivotal scene is a brain autopsy. The brain belonged to Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center I remember watching on TV in the seventies. To most fans, interior linemen are noticed only when they get called for a penalty. Webster, though, was deeply esteemed. At a time when the U.S. steel industry was in turmoil, the Steelers were not just a football team. They were an emblem of hope, however spurious, that Pittsburgh could once again be a dynamic city.
And I, who as a child lived 2500 miles from Pittsburgh, shared in that experience. I became a Steelers fan in 1972, two days before Christmas. For decades, the Steelers had been losers. But in less than fifteen seconds, everything changed. I was in my brother’s bedroom, watching on a black-and-white TV while I strung popcorn on thread that would adorn our Christmas tree. The Steelers were playing the Oakland Raiders, the bad boys of the NFL, in the first round of the playoffs. Terry Bradshaw did not yet look like a Hall of Fame quarterback. I happened to be recording the audio of the broadcast (which was “expressly forbidden,” as the NFL always made clear), when the miracle occurred. My girlish shrieks of glee blotted out the voice of the great Curt Gowdy, calling the game for NBC.
The Steelers were down by one point, they were 60 yards from the Raiders’ end zone, time was winding down, it was fourth down, and Bradshaw, escaping a furious pass rush, rifled a pass toward  John “Frenchy” Fuqua, who was converging with the Raiders’ notorious Jack Tatam. In the ensuing deflection off Tatum’s shoulder pad, the football was driven in the opposite direction. Once gravity did its work, the game would be over. One Raider defender already had his arms thrust in celebration.
But wait! Everyone was stampeding toward the Raiders’ end zone. The Steelers’ rookie running back, Franco Harris, had made a shoestring catch of the deflected ball, managed to maintain his balance, veered to his left, and raced nearly untouched into the end zone. Fans flooded the field.
 Through the rest of the decade—my teenage years—the Steelers dominated the NFL, making the playoffs every year and winning four Super Bowls.
But that, of course, is not what Concussion is about. The movie focuses on Dr. Bennett Omalu (played by Will Smith), who detected abnormal tissue in Webster’s brain during an autopsy in 2002.
As Omalu himself commented on a PBS Frontline segment in 2013, “I was expecting to see a brain with Alzheimer’s disease features, so a shriveled, ugly-looking brain. But upon opening his skull, Mike’s brain looked normal….When I saw his brain I was actually disappointed, and I’m like, ‘No, this is a joke.’”
Omalu concluded that “this was something…Give it a name, present it as a disease. Develop a pathogenetic concept for it.
“So there I was. I thought the football industry would be happy with our new discovery.”
Quite the contrary, of course. As the PBS interviewer commented, “It seems like this threatens the very heart of American football.”
Omalu: “Yes, some of them actually said that I was attacking the American way of life. How dare you, a foreigner from Nigeria.”
Did the scenes dissecting the NFL’s stonewalling make me indignant? Yes. Particularly noteworthy was the depiction of the suicide of the former All-Pro safety Dave Duerson, who’d made a point of shooting himself in the chest, so that his brain could be donated to research.
But what really struck me wasn’t the movie’s message, which I already understood. My emotional take-away had little to do with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the disease that Dr. Omalu named. The floodgates opened near the start of the movie, when clips of the Steelers’ glory days flitted across the scratchy screen of my childhood.


  1. Dear Mitch,
    I continue to be inspired and moved by your writing. I know from watching my son grow up how hugely important a sports team can be. This piece, among other things, reminds me of the quality of that childhood passion and how it can continue.
    Your friend and reader,
    Hilary Sallick

  2. Thank you, Hilary. Comments are always welcome.