Despite the National Football League’s myriad problems—from domestic abusers like Greg Hardy and Ray Rice receiving slaps on the wrist for their heinous offenses to the NFL’s unsettling relationship with high-stakes fantasy-sports firms—the league is rarely kept in check. It is, after all, America’s Sport, worshiped with the same holy reverence as America’s actual favorite pastime: going to church.
But like religion, it’s a practice steeped in hypocrisy. You see, for every jaw-dropping hit, there is a man underneath the helmet whose brain is slowly deteriorating.
Filmmaker Peter Landesman’s new film Concussion, in theaters Christmas Day, dares to call out pro football for this glaring oversight, as well as the measures the league took to ensure that this disturbing reality was shielded from its legions of adoring fans.Set in 2005, the film chronicles Dr. Bennet Omalu’s (played by Will Smith) quest to publicize chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease found in American football players who’ve been exposed to repeated brain trauma. Omalu, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist, discovered evidence of CTE in the brain scans of numerous ex-NFL players. When he attempted to bring his findings out into the light, he found himself being denigrated and threatened by the league.
Landesman was formerly an award-winning journalist for The New York Times Magazine, so it should come as a bit of a surprise that the “paper of record” has been very critical of Concussion from the get-go, including a heavily scrutinized piece in September in which the Times recontextualized several emails exhumed in the Sony hack to attempt to prove that the filmmakers altered Concussion to appease the NFL. But the emails didn’t actually prove much, other than that the makers of the movie were trying to cover themselves legally by not including any scenes that took too much creative license and could get them sued by the league. That included a scene axed from the script featuring NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that seemed borderline defamatory.
“If there were roadblocks I didn’t see them or we blew through them,” Landesman tells The Daily Beast. “I never had any relationship with the NFL. They didn’t try to step in front of the train or hold up a hand. The best defense is the truth. It’s a true story. Even a corporate entity like the National Football League can’t keep a lid on it forever. We had a big studio, a big movie star behind us, and the truth.”
That big movie star was Will Smith, a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan and the parent of a football-playing son who was thus very conflicted about his role in taking on the NFL. “As a parent, the responsibility to bring this information to light was overwhelming,” Smith said. “I almost couldn’t say no.”
According to Landesman, he and Smith saw eye to eye from the very beginning. When asked if having a movie star like Smith onboard shielded him from potential NFL scrutiny, he says, “The only part that concerns me is the artistic part. If you do your job, and what you’re producing is good and powerful, you’re left alone to do your work. In this case, me and Will were in sync from the beginning.”
Dozens of NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE post-mortem. The list includes Jovan Belcher, a then-25-year-old linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs who shot his girlfriend (the mother of his 3-month-old child) to death before driving to the Chiefs’ practice facility and killing himself in front of head coach Romeo Crennel in the parking lot; legendary San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest; and former Bears safety Dave Duerson, who killed himself in a nearly identical way.
Despite these cases, and numerous TV specials and editorial copy covering CTE, the NFL’s popularity continues unabated. We are all, as pro football consumers, somewhat complicit for turning a blind eye to this important issue. Landesman says that neither he nor Will Smith has watched a down of NFL ball since filming Concussion.
“Nobody in any walk of life wants to know how the sausage is made. They just want to cook the sausage, put ketchup on it, eat it, and be left alone,” says Landesman. “Every time I watch football now I feel complicit. I haven’t watched a down of football all season, and Will hasn’t either. I feel complicit.”
“But I’m not judging,” he continues. “I think the NFL checks a lot of boxes in terms of how people consume entertainment going back to the gladiator days. People like violence and fulfilling their bloodlust. There are other things about football that are untenably powerful: the idea of a military operation, the idea of camaraderie. It’s almost like a running back running for the end zone is like someone running with a flag and planting it, like at Iwo Jima. There’s a sense of triumph that you can’t get in any other sport.”
Landesman believes that the NFL taps into America’s underlying militaristic and patriotic impulses. He may not be wrong; earlier this year, it was revealed that the U.S. military had paid the NFL millions for patriotic displays and tributes to the troops.
“There’s something about the helmet, the uniform, and the pads that make it feel like a military operation,” Landesman says of football. “And it’s a part of our needs as bloodlusting human beings. That’s why this issue is so complicated. And while all that’s true, the other thing that’s true is football can kill us—and is more likely to kill us than not. It’s beautiful, and it’s deadly.”
This correlation is one of several reasons why, according to Landesman, football has surpassed baseball as America’s pastime.
“Football embodies America more than baseball,” he says. “America is a big, blustering country that throws its weight around and pumps its chest. Baseball is a sport of precision and humility. There’s a very specific code in baseball about celebration, buffoonery, and pointing your finger and taunting an opponent. In football, there’s this sense of over-celebration and humiliation that rubs me the wrong way.”
In Concussion, the character of Dave Duerson is played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje—best known to audiences as Mr. Eko on Lost. After retiring from the NFL in 1993, Duerson purchased the company Fair Oaks Farms, and grew it into a thriving business. Later, he served as a vocal player representative on a panel that voted on the benefits retired NFL players would receive as part of the NFL’s disability plan. In 2007, Duerson controversially testified before Congress and defended the NFL’s disability policies, claiming that there was no proven link between pro football and dementia.
Then, in 2011, Duerson committed suicide. Before he killed himself, he sent a text message to his family saying that he wanted his brain to be studied at the Boston University School of Medicine for CTE. University medical researchers confirmed shortly thereafter that he had suffered from CTE.
“The biggest challenge with this movie was to decide when to end it, because it’s an ongoing problem and it’s still happening,” says Landesman. “I decided to end the movie with Dave Duerson’s death because it was the first time a player had committed suicide, shot himself in the chest, and left their brain to science because they felt they were literally losing their mind. History will look back on the Duerson suicide as the end of that football era. The NFL knew they could never lie about it. The problem with the Duerson suicide is it came on the same day we killed bin Laden, so history forgot about it a bit.”
Concussion is an important film taking on the vast, shady corporate entity—an entity that can’t seem to stop its ugly behavior. The NFL recently backed out of a groundbreaking $16 million seven-year study by Boston University into head trauma caused by football. And Dr. Elliott Pellman—a villainous character in the film (portrayed by Paul Reiser) who attempted to silence Omalu and repeatedly denied any connection between football and CTE—still plays a powerful role in the real-life NFL, serving as the league’s medical director.
Yet Landesman’s former employer, The New York Times, keeps trying to pick the movie to pieces. Deadline recently claimed that a planned Times “story has been scratched by its movie guys Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes about the David vs. Goliath battle between Dr. Bennet Omalu and the National Football League” in favor of running “a critical article” alleging the movie takes “dramatic license in its depiction of the late Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson.”Sure enough, the Times ran a piece—by the same writer of the September hit piece, Ken Belson—claiming that the Duerson family is upset at the way the late NFL player is portrayed in the movie.“Look, nobody likes the way they’re portrayed ever,” says Landesman of the Duerson controversy. “I used to be a journalist, and nobody likes to see the unvarnished truth. I feel the Duerson family’s pain, and that they lost him, and the fact that I portrayed his suicide—which was a very powerful moment. I embrace what’s agonizing about it. And his suicide is portrayed as heroic. His self-martyrdom, and leaving his brain to science, was such a selfless, poetic act. It’s so important to the history of this whole issue. I think time will treat the portrayal as this beautiful, heroic thing that it is.”