Education · Films

Of Football and Brains

That evening I surprised myself when I not only enjoyed but also liked, I mean, really liked a film about football. American football, to be precise.

[Disclaimer # 1. Even after living for about 15 years in the USA I never developed any taste for football. I am one of the those Indians who don’t even care for cricket. Basically, I am not into sports.]

What I liked about this film, based on a true story, was the fact that it isn’t really about football. The 2015 film, Concussion is actually about a doctor’s pursuit for truth.

 

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[Disclaimer # 2. This is not a review of the film. None of the film related posts on this blog are. I am only sharing how the film spoke to me.] 

Will Smith superbly portrays the character of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a well-mannered, polite and extremely likable Nigerian forensic pathologist working in a county coroner’s office in Pittsburgh. The plot revolves around Dr. Omalu’s fight against the US professional football body, National Football League (NFL) which wants to suppress his research findings on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), brain degeneration suffered by professional football players due to repeated concussions. 

Here are four key things that I most appreciated in the film. 

1. Endearing portrayal of a doctor, a man of science and his pursuit of knowledge:

Dr. Omalu is a no-nonsense, serious guy, a doctor with many advanced degrees, who has no interest in football, who doesn’t even watch TV though he has one at home, because as he says, “that’s what Americans do, have a TV.”

But when he realises that he must know everything there is to know about football, particularly how a player gets repeated blows to his head, he does everything a committed researcher must do. Except playing football himself.

He watches numerous games and practice sessions, and watches them extremely closely – both on TV and on the field – to minutely notice the nature and severity of blows a player’s head receives. He studies the anatomy of various animals and birds to determine the severity of concussion they can bear, in comparison to an average human brain and explains:

“All of these animals have shock absorbers built into their bodies. The woodpecker’s tongue extends through the back of the mouth out of the nostril, encircling the entire cranium. It is the anatomical equivalent of a safety belt for its brain. Human beings? Not a single piece of our anatomy protects us from those types of collisions. A human being will get concussed at sixty G’s. A common head-to-head contact on a football field? One hundred G’s. God did not intend for us to play football.”

When he recognises the gravity of enormous damage that repeated concussions do to the brain of a football player, he arrives at a simple conclusion – “God did not intend for us to play football.” It is his sincerity and honesty which makes him especially endearing, and also helps the viewer see what he is up against. In this case, the gods of the football!

When Dr. Omalu realises that NFL wouldn’t care for his findings, in his characteristic innocence, he proposes a simple solution to the problem. To his boss, another likable character in the film, Dr. Cyril Wecht played by Albert Brooks, he says:

Dr. Bennet Omalu: I solved the problem. All they have to do is put on the side of the helmet, “The Surgeon General has determined that playing football is hazardous to your health.”

Dr. Cyril Wecht: You got to put it on *both* sides of the helmet.

This is a guy who spends his own savings to conduct as thorough a forensic investigation as necessary in the absence of official funding. He challenges a powerful organisation like NFL despite all kinds of threats, despite losing his job, home and their unborn child. He does all this because of his steadfastness to the truth. When he confronts and challenges a high-ranking official from the NFL, a doctor himself, one can feel the zeal for truth in his voice: “Tell the truth! Tell the truth!”

2. Conflict between a disinterested pursuit of truth and an interested repression of truth:

In direct contrast to Dr. Omalu and his pursuit of truth, we have NFL which is actually aware of the repercussions of repeated concussions based on some findings of previous studies conducted by their own doctors. But NFL had suppressed those findings, lest they should harm the sport’s popularity. 

Why would the NFL suppress the findings? The answer is obvious, and oh-so-American: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Football like any other spectator sport anywhere is about money. BIG MONEY. But in American context, the big money is even bigger. Professional sports are important drivers of American economy. Tens of thousands of jobs all around the country are dependent on sport industries. 

In America, football is also about a few other things. It is about winning high school games, which impacts school district’s finances. It is about securing college admissions. It is about machismo, about the great American value of competitive spirit. Anything which would harm football’s popularity, thereby negatively impacting future recruitment isn’t in the interest of NFL.

But as Dr. Cyril Wecht tells Dr. Omalu, there is more to football in America:

“The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it’s theirs.”

This religion-like status for football, thanks to the aggressive promotion by corporate sponsors, media and other interested parties, is perhaps a unique American phenomenon.

[Disclaimer # 3. Europeans, South Americans and many others also love football (soccer, the real football as an Indian would say, not the American kind). But perhaps nowhere else we would find the same kind of collective-craze as Americans feel over superbowl.]

[Disclaimer # 4. I use words such as Americans or Europeans very broadly, fully realising that a lot of people everywhere, including the US, don’t care much, or at all, for football. Or any other sport. Just as many Indians don’t care for cricket. My intention is not to over-generalise or stereotype, but to speak of a wider social-cultural phenomenon.]

This conflict between a disinterested and a steadfast pursuit of knowledge which doesn’t bend or compromise, and a seriously compromised organisational cover-up of the truth is well portrayed in the film. When Dr. Omalu is surprised that NFL isn’t interested in his findings, Dr. Cyril Wecht gives him a lesson in reality:

Dr. Cyril Wecht: [rhetorically] Did you think the NFL would thank you?

Dr. Bennet Omalu: [earnestly] Yes.

Dr. Cyril Wecht: What the hell for?

Dr. Bennet Omalu: For knowing.

Obviously, knowing isn’t enough for NFL to do something about the problem. Their interest is elsewhere.

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Source

3. Critique of excessive commercialisation of sports and science:

“Commercialism is a modern sociological phenomenon; one might almost say, that is the whole phenomenon of modern society.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 25, pp. 485)

Ours is the age marked by commercialism, by the “predominance of the economic man, the universality of the commercial value or the utilitarian and materially efficient and productive value for everything in human life” (ibid). 

“Even in the outlook on knowledge, thought, science, art, poetry and religion the economic conception of life overrides all others…For the modern economic view of life…Science is of immense importance not because it discovers the secrets of Nature for the advancement of knowledge, but because it utilises them for the creation of machinery and develops and organises the economic resources of the community…” (p. 487)

A big chunk of scientific research in the US is funded by big corporations, which have obvious stake in the findings. This is also true of medical research. The film, Concussion, situates itself peripherally but firmly in this complex web of scientific/medical research being compromised because of commercial and economic interest, by focusing on the commercial nature of sport industry which tries to curb pure disinterested research.

4. Remember who you are and do the right thing:

In this context of science at the service of commercialism, we have Dr. Omalu, a sincere and honest researcher, pressured by NFL to bury his findings and not speak the truth. At one such moment when he feels completely disheartened, his wife, Prema Mutiso, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw reminds him of who he is. 

“If you don’t speak for the dead, who will? You are of the Igbo tribe, Bennet. When you have the truth, the thing you are told you cannot do is the thing you must do. Embrace that, and nothing created by man can bring you down.”

This reminder is especially important for Nigeria-born doctor, who has now built a successful life for himself in the US. All through the film we are given many hints of how he has so carefully mastered the ‘American way’, despite facing some subtle and not-so-subtle racism that is part of the American experience for most immigrants, especially those from Africa. We hear Dr. Omalu fondly tell his wife what he thought of America as a child –

“You could be anything, you could do anything – I never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be an American.”

But now that he is an American, he is being pressured to not do the one thing he really wanted to do – tell the truth. That’s when his wife’s reminder helps him wake up and remember who he is. He is of Igbo tribe, a tribe which lost much of its culture, religion, system of governance, law, education, customs, everything – to the horrors of British colonisation and consequent civil wars.

The loss of identity is the biggest loss under colonial experience.Only a process of going back to one’s cultural roots, a sort of a decolonising experience, can help one rediscover a rooted sense of identity, a sense of belonging in the post-colonial world. Only then would a person know how to successfully navigate through this multi-cultural world, rooting oneself in a core center but widening oneself to embrace the multiplicity.

That was Dr. Omalu’s moment of recognising his true identity. But this recognition was not only of his roots in an old pagan culture which had been destroyed by the greed and violence of a monotheistic modernity imposed by the colonialists. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, a deeper and truer recognition of himself as a scientist, a healer, a human being, who must do the right thing by speaking for the dead, those who died because NFL wouldn’t let the truth come out.

He must speak for the dead, and stand with the truth especially when everyone is telling him not to. Probably, that’s what his ancestors also did when faced with the threat of cultural annihilation and a complete loss of their way of life. 


To read more film-related posts, click herehere, here,herehere, or here.

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26 thoughts on “Of Football and Brains

  1. Haven’t seen the movie but it sounds interesting. There is so much money in professional sport that long term health takes a back seat. American football is not a sport I enjoy.

  2. Now this has intrigued me more that I want to see the movie

    Truth.. who cares for truth actually I doubt if anyone ..especially when it is not beneficial to them.

    1. I am sure you will enjoy the movie, Bikram! I hope you do get to watch it sometime.

      And yes, as for the truth, well, those for whom their self-interest (and this can be in any form) is more important than anything truth will not matter. But thankfully in this world we also have people like Dr. Omalu, on whom this film’s story is based.

      1. Oh yes we definitely have people like him .. who stand for truth and fight hard all there life BUT the problem is this fight sometimes seems to go to waste because things just don’t change ..

        I wonder why this rush for money will not stop in spite of knowing that money can’t buy everything ..

        Or maybe it’s just stupid me trying to live in an ideal world. . I wonder if I made a mistake saying NO to all the overtime I get offered ..getting double time..idiot me..😡😡

  3. This is THAT football where the ball is hit with everything except the foot? 🙂

    The main message is the way knowledge is distorted to suit interests. The slow and steady eradication of unbiased enquiry is the worst contribution of the market economy to mankind.

    1. Yes, it is THAT football 🙂 And heads play a big role in the game!
      And I agree completely with your summary statement there about the worst contribution of the market economy!

  4. Sports is not something I really enjoy, but true, the money in sports, any sport actually, is simply too much for the players to consider anything other than that.
    Missed this one…and Will Smiith, of course!

    1. I agree about the money. But in this story it is less about the money that the player makes, and more about the money the NFL makes off the sport which is what forces them to suppress research findings that have impact on players’ health. They would rather have their players’ brains be damaged than make them aware of the truth.

      I think you will enjoy the film, I did 🙂 And I am also not a sports person!

      Thanks Shilpa!

  5. What a detailed view of the movie and the characters. The research, money involved and the apathy for health and safety, you have covered everything. I have to see this movie soon. I am a fan of Will Smith, football not so much. 😀

    1. Thanks, Inderpreet. You can tell from this detailed post that I really enjoyed the film, can’t you? 😀 Please do watch it if possible, you will not be disappointed.

  6. Hmmm….haven’t seen the movie. It looks quite interesting from your words. Will share the review with the man who I’m sure will get it soon then. 🙂 Will Smith is one fine actor who gives his best in every shot.

    1. Thanks, Rekha! Yes, you will enjoy the film, I think. And agree with you about Will Smith. But I only like him in serious dramas he does, not the too violent sci-fi stuff!

  7. I didn’t read the post in detail since i want to watch the film. But i was happy to know you lived here for 15 years (that’s a lot of time)!

    I haven’t learned football either, even after spending exactly 5 yrs here….but i am into cricket though.

    1. Yes, 15 years is a lot of time indeed! I am grateful to have had that experience. And now I am equally happy and grateful to be back in India (it will soon be 9 years since my return).

      I think you will enjoy the movie, do watch it and let me know what you think 🙂

      Thanks!

      1. Yeah…I watch a lot of movies.

        I, too, want to be back to India sometime…for a start hoping to leave US in a few months, but not for India right away.

  8. I loved this post Beloo, in fact I love most of your not-reviews of films. Were I to review one this is the way I’d do it. This one seems like a must-watch – one man’s fight against the sports giant.

  9. I would love to watch this one. The last lesson – Remember who you are and do the right thing, speaks to me so much. This is something I can never forget 🙂 While reading the post, I was telling VT about this one. Thank you for sharing those lessons.

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