In mid-August I attended a preseason football game at Heinz Stadium, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the National Football League team I’ve followed since my youth. Temperatures were in the low nineties with high humidity, and the Steelers lost to the Detroit Lions. All that being said, I found being at a professional game an interesting experience.
My enjoyment was not unalloyed. As the players smashed into and tackled one another I remembered the impression the 2015 film “Concussion” made on me. Set in 2002, it portrays Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh-based Nigerian forensic pathologist who determines that years of on-field impacts make NFL players prey to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that leads to brain degradation. Former players suffering from CTE experience severe cognitive problems that even lead some of them to commit suicide.
“Concussion” details Dr. Omalu’s uphill battle against the NFL, which is hellbent on suppressing his research. Living in a city where football is a cherished institution, Omalu is subjected to considerable pressure to back down from his efforts. He faces potential deportation or being sent to prison on petty charges as punishment for tarnishing the NFL. When Omalu’s wife, Prema, suffers a miscarriage after being stalked, the couple moves to California for reasons of safety.
What really drew the situation illuminated by “Concussion” into sharp focus for me on that steamy summer evening was when, at halftime, two teams of little boys ran onto the field. The kids – whose outsize helmets gave them the appearance of bobble-heads – went at a short scrimmage with enthusiasm mirroring that of the pros.
As the youngsters’ brief contest drew to a close with high-fives and the exchange of congratulations with the opponents, I couldn’t help wondering: had I witnessed the seeds of future CTE cases being planted?