#360USA: Concussion will hit the NFL like a ton of bricks

Steve Brenner 13:58 07/09/2015
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Head games: The NFL’s hard-hitting style of play can lead to brain trauma.

One NFL saga may have finally died a death, yet a decidedly more dangerous white elephant in the room is refusing to leave without a fight.

With the season mercifully starting next week, all the endless talk about Tom Brady’s deflated balls will soon be a mere footnote lost in the madness of a new campaign.

Ultimately, the highly paid legal eagles easily picked through the wreckage of blundering Roger Goodell’s attempts to pin gross malpractice on the reigning Super Bowl champions.

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Yet the subject of concussion and severe brain trauma remains very much on the menu with absolutely no sight of it disappearing anytime soon.

The release this week of the trailer of a new film starring Will Smith (pictured right) has once again left everyone in the NFL’s corridors of power squirming very uncomfortably in the posh seats.

The film – aptly named ‘Concussion’  –  tells the stirring, true story of forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu’s discovery of brain trauma when delivering an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster in 2002.

Omalu, who was  initially unaware of Webster’s sporting career, quickly deciphered the deterioration of his brain was not akin to someone in their early 50s. Years of hitting the pads and being on the receiving end of crushing blows had damaged him inexorably.

He had identified CET – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – which was a degenerative brain disease linked to multiple head smashes.

It was a watershed moment for sport – let alone American football.  Concussion, after years of shoulder shrugging, was finally being treated with the respect it deserved. Naturally, Omalu searched for answers and demanded action. Something had to be done.

That’s when the Nigerian began crashing into brick walls and driving down dead ends with frustrating regularity. The NFL, utterly shamefully, attempted to discredit his findings, wheeling out all manner of supposed experts to rubbish his work.

What a way to act. However, we are talking about an all-conquering organisation, arguably one of the most powerful sports leagues on the planet which has seen revenue double to an almighty $12 billion over the last decade. You do ruffle a few feathers to reach that position.

In 2013, ESPN pulled a documentary called ‘League of Denial’ which included a compelling interview with Omalu following complaints from the NFL. The network were running scared.

This film however, which is due for release on December 25, has steadfastly thrust the debate into the ether once again. And a look at the rumpus it has already caused should be noted as a forbearer of what will surely follow.

No sooner had the trailer been released, the New York Times ran a front page story indicating Sony Pictures, via a series of leaked emails, had been pressured by the NFL to tone down various elements of the film.

The story undoubtedly cast dispersion on director Peter Landesman’s work. It aimed to instantly sow seeds of doubt.

How accurate was all this? Has it been overblown for dramatic effect? Who can we believe? They were all reasonable questions. However, an investigative journalist smelled a rat.

“There was absolutely zero discourse between me or anybody at the studio with the NFL. None. The only exchange was one-sentence e-mails trying to arrange a meeting, before deciding to cancel the meeting,” Landesman stressed while confirming Sony lawyers deleted some scenes, insisting they made the story “better and richer and fairer”.

“We had our methodology of telling our story, and we did it unapologetically, and with the utmost fairness and concern for all considerations, legal, artistic, and otherwise. It seems like a hatchet job has been done here, and came out of the NFL’s offices.”

It’s a legal minefield. As multi-million dollar lawsuits continue to be compiled and more heart-wrenching stories about former players deciding to take their own lives sadden sports fans around the globe, the filmmakers and the NFL themselves walk on icy ground.

Although there is mounting evidence that CTE has been caused by playing in the NFL, it’s more about a raft of risk factors rather than it being the sole cause of all the aforementioned problems.

Scientists continue to work on the issue. Nothing is definitive. Not yet, anyway.

Any stark accusations would see the legal payouts burst the bank. Massaging the truth could be a director’s only option.

Other movies depicting real life events such as Moneyball and The Social Network , which chronicled the creation of Facebook, were critiqued following their release amid accusations of factual inaccuracies.

Yet this story, in whatever guise, needs to be told. The conversations must continue until the deaths cease.

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