Three years ago, Hall of Famer Junior Seau shot himself in the chest with no suicide note after seven years of insomnia left him too depressed to continue.
Two years before, he had survived his car’s 100-foot fall off a cliff. Five neuroscientists said Seau’s brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—or concussion-induced depression or dementia. The science says his death was from football.
There are now 30 former NFL players who have committed suicide. Many shot themselves in the head. One, Jovan Belcher, killed his girlfriend, then drove to his team’s practice facility to shoot himself. Former Steeler Terry Long drank antifreeze to escape years of clinical depression.
Doctors say it was from football.
America’s favorite sport—at the professional level—is being revealed as organized barbarism, and the NFL has been hushing its involvement in incentivizing skull-crushing hits while being aware of their deadly impact for years. Countless exposés have been written or aired, including one that was pulled from ESPN after it was completed, in part because of the network’s financial interest in the league’s well-being, as The New York Times reported.
It is sensational. It is also true.
No documentary has worked. No article, either. Scientists and doctors are written off as killjoys or doomsayers.
And the league, emboldened by a sub-$1 billion lawsuit that hushed CTE survivors, is enjoying some of its highest viewership ever. If this were a plot in a movie, nobody would believe it.
Now, it is.
Will Smith will play Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who discovered CTE in 2002 and participated in Seau’s autopsy. The movie is about Omalu’s quest to get the league to own up to its role in leaving players depressed, helpless, or sometimes dead—and to push for rule changes to stop it.
He made strides, but he couldn’t do it alone.
On Monday, after Concussion’s trailer was released, the reaction was immense and immediate. For hours, it was a trending topic on Twitter and Facebook.
So can Smith help put an end to the concussion crisis? One of America’s last filmmakers to take on a big corporation and win thinks so, but he says it’s going to require the movie star to act like a politician for the first time.
Josh Fox directed Gasland. His movement’s rise started just the same way—with a viral video, this one of water coming out of a home faucet that was now flammable because of the fracking of natural gas nearby.
One Emmy and Oscar nomination later, New York state banned fracking, and others are following suit.
Fox says he thinks Will Smith can do the same with football’s CTE problem. But the actor can’t do it the old-fashioned way.
“You can’t make change by putting it in the movie theaters, then putting a petition on MoveOn.org or whatever. That’s a flash in the pan, a blip on the radar screen,” Fox told The Daily Beast. “Will Smith has to go to every single big football town and stage a big event. That’s what’s gonna do it. Anything short of that is kind of a hobby.”
Fox’s game plan goes like this: Create an event to see Concussion in big football towns—in big NFL towns like Dallas, or huge college towns like Gainesville, Florida. Put out a call to local advocacy groups, such as concerned moms who want change in the youth game.
Split the gate with the charities. Invite local members of Congress or state representatives. They’ll go—they’ll get to sit with Will Smith and take a picture with him—and they’ll listen.
Smith can get in lawmakers’ ears. He can offer solutions for legislation to make football safer for kids, to deincentivize big hits and to take big money interests like Nike out of the high school apparel game. He can make football safer from the ground up.
And, really, only a well-loved movie star can successfully lobby for change in the places that need it. Smith is the only person who will get people to listen. But he’ll have to be an advocate for a cause first and a movie star promoting a film second.
“We have to use the currency of social movements. We have to talk in that language. We have to say ‘ban.’ We have to say ‘boycott.’ We have to say ‘public health’ to the people who will listen,” says Fox.
“It’s meaningless if you just make a movie. He has to do this for a living now.”
And any other kind of promotion for this, Fox says, isn’t advocacy—it’s an Oscar grab.
“If Will Smith did, say, a 50-day tour, what does that mean in Hollywood dollars? The real question is, does he really need dollars? If he really cares about concussions in the NFL, he’ll go to every single NFL town and show this movie with three or four NFL players. He’ll do it at the colleges,” Fox says. “If you strategized this not like a movie but like a movement, then you can win.”
And Fox doesn’t just think this will work. He thinks this will actually happen.
The commercialization of protest in 2015—especially combined with a household name like the NFL and one of the biggest movie stars on the planet—can help blend genuine advocacy with pure marketing ritual.
After all, if the campaign to sell tickets looks more like a good cause than a cash grab, people will glom onto an opportunity to better themselves—even if all they’re doing is heading to a Will Smith movie and Q&A.
“If he says, ‘I’ll forgo the next action blockbuster. I’m taking this month off,’ it’s a really great campaign from the movie company itself,” Fox says. “This is what sells tickets. That’s what you need now.”
Research alone couldn’t stop the concussion crisis. Long, damning investigative reports couldn’t either. But Fox says this movie can. He’s seen it happen himself, and he says he’d be glad to help the film out. He, too, wants to end the concussion crisis, and he doesn’t want to wait.
Last fall, every single one of the top 20 shows on TV was an NFL game. More Americans than not—about 68 percent of potential viewers—watched the NFL last year, the second-most watched season ever.
Concussion comes out on Christmas Day. The NFL will be in Week 16. The 2015 high school football season will be over.
“We’re feeding people to the lions,” Fox says. “It’s a big deal in the NFL. It’s much more of a big deal to the millions of kids in school who don’t know they’re getting their brains bashed in.”