'Concussion' Truths Forced Will Smith to Confront Feelings for Football, NFL

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterDecember 22, 2015

Actor Will Smith attends a special screening of
Evan Agostini/Associated Press

The script for the movie Concussion landed in the hands of actor Will Smith. Smith's first reaction was one that he didn't expect.

"I was actually repelled," he said in a phone interview, "before I was drawn to it."

Smith described this inner battle with loving football the way he did and the fact football may actually be physically damaging to the long-term health of the mind. This is, in fact, the core of the movie, which opens on Christmas—the conflict of adoring something that potentially may be harmful.

Smith read that script, and the conflict was like a punch to the gut. After all, his experience with football could not have been more enjoyable. Smith's son, Trey, played football at Oaks Christian High School in Los Angeles, one of the best football programs in the state.

Will, Jada Pinkett and Trey Smith in 2015.
Will, Jada Pinkett and Trey Smith in 2015.Powers Imagery/Associated Press/Associated Press

Smith watched him progress through the years. Dad in close proximity, all the way, watching football help his son become a man. Smith remembers that time fondly. It is, in many ways, a typical American journey. Many fathers and sons have become closer because of football.

"I'm a football fan," said Smith. "The time I spent with my son, watching him play, and grow, and the time we spent together, it was wonderful."

To Smith, football was family. To Smith, it was part of the glue that helped him become closer to his son.

Then came that reading of the script. His emotions about football were suddenly tossed about, like a ship entering the upper atmosphere with a rickety heat shield. Thus, that repulsion as he read the script.

The facts about subconcussive blows—minor hits, not concussions—and how they generate chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) rocked his football world. Suddenly, there was an undeniable sense of dread.

"I didn't want it to be true," he said.

What didn't Smith want to be true? That the character he plays, Dr. Bennet Omalu, had discovered a deadly brain disease that might be an inherent part of playing football? The sport he loved, Smith thought, might be far more dangerous than he ever knew. Than anyone ever knew.

"I loved Ron Jaworski and the Eagles," said Smith, a Philadelphia native. "I just didn't want to believe any of this."

Then, Smith met Omalu, and everything changed.

I've written about the Concussion movie before, and about its impact on me. It remains, despite any quarrel with its content, the most important sports movie ever made. To me, it's simply the best sports movie ever made.

It's Hollywood's way of pulling back the curtain on the science of what football does to the mind. It will cause any rational, warm-blooded human being to wonder if playing football is worth it—especially for kids.

Part of the movie emphasizes how the NFL attempted to bury not just Omalu's findings, but also Omalu's credibility as an expert.

I asked Smith point-blank: Does he think the NFL attempted to cover up Omalu's discovery? To me, it's clear the league did. To Smith, the answer is more complex.

"We debated this heavily," said Smith, speaking of he and the producers of the film. "For my own psyche, and for my belief in humanity, I don't believe in bad guys.

"I believe in survival, and when our survival is at stake, we make bad decisions. I am reserving judgment on a cover-up and who knew what, when."

To Smith, once the NFL learned of Omalu's discovery, the league went into that survival mode, not cover-up mode. Some of that is splitting hairs, but as he said, Smith doesn't see the world in terms of good guys versus bad guys.

Smith's next point was the most important. "The real enemy is the lack of information about how CTE works," he said, "I think the movie starts to change that."

The time frame for Concussion is 2002 to 2012. In that period, the NFL, after Omalu's paper detailing CTE was released, attempted to smear Omalu. This went on for a decade.

The movie causes a range of emotions: frustration, sadness and happiness, especially after Omalu is vindicated. For me, the most powerful emotion was maybe anger. My main thought: No one has been held accountable for what was a decade of lies from the NFL about CTE.

What I'm about to say isn't overstatement or trolling: If the NFL wasn't deceptive about CTE, it's possible lives would have been saved. If the NFL had taken Omalu's work more seriously, maybe some of the players who did take their lives would not have—maybe they would have been better prepared or supported in facing their illness.

Or maybe things would have been better if former commissioner Paul Tagliabue had not said this in 1994, according to Frontline: "On concussions, I think is one of these pack journalism issues, frankly. ... There is no increase in concussions, the number is relatively small. ... The problem is a journalist issue."

Or if Tagliabue had not appointed a rheumatologist to the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. So many paths the NFL could have taken, and the league took all the wrong ones.

Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue (left) with Patriots owner Bob Kraft and Jets owner Woody Johnson at a league meeting in 2006.
Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue (left) with Patriots owner Bob Kraft and Jets owner Woody Johnson at a league meeting in 2006.PAUL SANCYA/Associated Press

The league's reaction recently has been better. The chairman of the Chicago Bears board, George McCaskey, said Friday the film was good for football, according to the Associated Press:

The important part, I think, is that any attention on player health and safety is a good thing. The NFL's made changes in recent years, rules changes, research is being funded, we need to improve the science, we need to improve the equipment and we need to improve the rules, need to improve the rules enforcement. And we think that the changes that we're making in the NFL will filter down to all levels. ...

I think it would be a mistake to rely on any one aspect to improve safety. I think equipment is part of it. I think rules, and rules enforcement is part of it. I think coaching is a big part of it, especially at the youth level.

The Concussion screenplay is based on a 2009 GQ article written by Jeanne Marie Laskas. "Her article is the best I've read on this topic," said Omalu in notes on the movie released by the studio. "She humanized me. Remember, everything about me in the media was negative—I was this alien who worked to destroy the way of life in America. That article was a game-changer. Suddenly, people started opening their hearts and minds to me.

"Twelve years later, I can't believe how bold and audacious I was in that paper [he wrote after his initial research]," he added. "For 12 years, I've been bruised and burned. That paper was very idealistic. But there was nothing that I said in that paper that has not been confirmed by independent researchers."

Bennett Omalu at a 2010 House committee hearing, with Ira Casson, onetime co-chair of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.
Bennett Omalu at a 2010 House committee hearing, with Ira Casson, onetime co-chair of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Has Smith heard from the NFL?

"I haven't heard from them," he said to me. "I think if this were four years ago, the reaction from the NFL would have been more fierce. This film is more about information than revelation."

The movie's greatest strength is the way it explains the complexities of neurology and matters of the brain in simple terms that are easy to digest. To me, this is the film's ultimate power. Mothers and fathers of kids playing football will watch it, maybe in theaters, or maybe when it's released on video, and it will lay out the dangers their children face.

There are still some who don't believe the science—this CBS Sports piece by Ryan Wilson addresses the skepticism—but any father or mother watching this movie will be slightly stunned. There will be questions between parents. Many questions. As there should be.

The last question I asked Smith: Did making the movie change his views about football and the NFL?

"Football and the NFL are two different things," he said. "The experience my son and I had. The Friday night lights. That bonding was special."

And the NFL?

He paused. "I'm reserving judgment," he said.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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