Skip to main content

A few weeks ago, a couple of friends and I went south to watch the Godzilla v. Mothra of college football – Alabama against Louisiana State. David and Goliath.

We hired a cab driver named Terrence to take us on the hour-long ride from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa. Downtown Birmingham was devoid of human life. Apparently, all of it had moved west for the day. Tuscaloosa, a small, tatty college town, was pulsing red. Every sidewalk, every parking lot, every bar, every square foot of space was rammed with tipsy fans flying colours like the world's friendliest street gang.

The University of Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium holds 102,000 – more than the population of the town it services. At least another 40,000 people show up ticketless on game days, just to tailgate.

Terrence took us in on crowded back roads to avoid police roadblocks and get closer to the stadium. We crept along, watching an endless street party with a very Last Night on Earth vibe.

"Is it always like this?" one of my friends wondered.

"Always," said Terrence, slung low over the wheel to see as much as he could see. "These people believe in football."

He drew the key word out reverentially. If this is a church, Terrence is also a congregant. This is the America that does not care about the problems inherent in the world's most unforgiving popular sport. They believe in football.

In those terms, the ongoing assault on the game by the forces of Health and Safety might be called a crisis of faith.

The most recent and certainly most effective piece of agitprop in that regard is the new Will Smith vehicle, Concussion, to be released Christmas Day.

This isn't really a sports film. There's very little actual football in it. Instead, it's a David-and-Goliath narrative leavened with a sizable helping of 1970s paranoid thriller.

The protagonist is Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born Pittsburgh pathologist who first discovered the deteriorative brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in dead players.

Omalu tries to present his findings to the NFL. He is steadily rebuffed. His reputation and professional bonafides are questioned. His friends are persecuted. He spends a lot of time standing in hotel lobbies, waiting for conferences he's not allowed to speak at to end. There are many earnest expositions about football's place in the national mythos, and why it's being protected by shady true believers.

This is 12 Angry Men minus 11 men. And the one we get is more exasperated than angry.

Through suggestive noir tropes (such as a car ominously lingering in front of Omalu's house, although nothing comes of it), we are led to understand that the failed treatment of brain injuries in football isn't a function of medical ignorance. Rather, it's one part of a vast coverup. It's an idea likely to appeal to conspiracy-minded Americans.

The story is "based on real events" – the Hollywood dog whistle that lets you know what you're seeing may be true in its broad strokes, but not in its details.

One of the tragic villains of the piece is former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson. He morphs from one of the NFL's executive shills and an Omalu tormentor to an addled and broken victim of CTE. Duerson's family claims that much of what he's seen doing and saying in the movie did not happen.

"They completely made stuff up," Duerson's son Tregg told The New York Times.

"[P]eople go to movies not to digest information and data, but to have an emotional experience," Concussion's director Peter Landesman countered. "The movie is emotionally and spiritually accurate all the way through."

In other words, "We made some stuff up."

Since the 2013 release of League of Denial, a book detailing the NFL's feeble attempts to blinker itself to the grievous decline of some of its former players, the league has been stuck in a narrative it can't shake – that football kills people as surely as smoking or drug use or any other destructive lifestyle choice. The idea is the foundational beat that underlies Concussion's rhythm.

The facts don't bear that out. A 2012 study published in The American Journal of Cardiology of 3,400 former NFL pros found that, on average, football players live longer than the national average for men of comparable age and race. This doesn't say anything about the quality of one's life after a decade spent being bulldozed for a living, but it does refute the mortality bogeyman constantly being called out of the closet in Concussion.

The truth about head injuries, as with the truth about anything, is that it's complicated. This is a very new area of science. No one knows precisely how CTE works or what exactly it does to you. Many of the players who've been shown to have it also had a raft of problems related to mental illness and addiction. Did CTE cause them; was it exacerbated by them; or was it coincidental to them? Those discoveries will take time.

But since it's difficult to fit "Concussion: Which May or May Not Kill You; We Just Aren't Sure Yet" on a billboard, the filmmakers have decided to go with the alarmist point of view. As a piece of persuasive (if flimsy) entertainment, it works.

Thus, the NFL's problem isn't brain injuries. The same people who wring their hands over the game's violence and rail against the league's hard-heartedness still hit the couch on Sunday afternoons. In the years since we've been told that football kills, TV ratings have gone up.

A disconnect so jarring cannot be reconciled, so no one tries. It's the hypocrisy that dares not speak its name.

Instead, the NFL's problem is the perception of brain injuries. People may watch large strangers battering themselves into early graves – I suspect it's part of the reason many are so enthralled – but they won't want their own kids doing it.

Perhaps leagues will make simple changes – removing face masks, replacing the current armour with soft pads – that would reduce head impacts. They'd also have the effect of making the game seem less risky, which is its own sort of risk for the NFL. You could turn NASCAR into bumper cars, and no one would ever die on a track again. There's a reason that doesn't happen.

More likely, the sport will remain as it is and become a true gladiator pit. Eventually, it will be played only by the children of the poor, the sort of people willing to risk everything for a few years of high-school glory or a college scholarship. It will become what boxing became.

In one of Concussion's many urgent conversations, a flustered NFL doctor tells Omalu that "if just 10 per cent of America's mothers" give up on football, the game is finished.

Maybe that's true in New York or Portland or San Diego, or any other cosmopolitan gathering place of elites.

But go down south. Go to Tuscaloosa.

Football is the tie that binds that community. They believe in it more fervently than anything else that happens outside the walls of a church. In places like that – which are still the majority of America – football's not going anywhere.