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Will Smith tries to gleam a light on darkest side of a competition he loves

Will Smith tries to gleam a light on darkest side of a competition he loves

This story appears in a Dec. 28, 2015, emanate of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.

One late summer morning in 2014 in Lodi, Calif., Dr. Bennet Omalu was doing what he does many days. He was methodically dissecting a tellurian physique to establish since it had died.

For Omalu, who is 47 years aged and a arch medical investigator of San Joaquin County, a act of behaving an autopsy is a devout and ethereal one. He treats any body, including a immature Hispanic lady who now lay before him, as if it were still sentient. He kindly washes it. He cuts by a skin customarily with purify instruments. He communicates with it. “I need your help,” he will think. “We are in this together. Please assistance me find out what happened to you.”

After Omalu non-stop a immature woman’s abdomen, she gave him a answer. Her stomach was filled with a pink, bleached liquid. Many soporific addicts, Omalu knew, guzzle Pepto-Bismol to negate a revulsion prompted by their habit. The lady had expected died of an overdose of OxyContin, as Omalu explained to dual doubtful visitors who were examination a procedure.


Twelve Septembers earlier, when he was operative in a Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, a unequivocally opposite physique lay on Omalu’s table. When he was a child in Nigeria, Omalu had treasured a United States, and while he continued to do so after immigrating in 1994, he had nonetheless to turn meddlesome in America’s game, football. Though he lived in Pittsburgh, he had never listened of Mike Webster, a dear Hall of Fame core for a Steelers, and hadn’t listened a internal whispers about Webster’s successive skirmish into headache-wracked insanity. Webster’s illness led him to live in his pickup truck, to lift out his teeth and superglue them behind in and to regularly startle himself with a taser.

Unlike a lady in Lodi, however, Webster did not yield Omalu with an apparent answer. He seemed to be a physically healthy 50-year-old male whose mind showed no manifest abnormalities.

Omalu kept digging. He eventually found, underneath a microscope, that Webster’s mind was riddled with dim tangles of tau protein, that he believed had choked it from a inside out. He identified a condition as ongoing dire encephalopathy—CTE—and he attributed it to a 70,000 hits to a conduct he estimated Webster had endured during his football career.

At first, Omalu suspicion a NFL would acquire his findings—especially after CTE kept branch adult in a smarts of other former players he examined who had suffered from mental illness and had committed suicide: Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters. Instead a league, and a football-loving public, attempted to disprove and dominate him, branding him a quack. “I was unpleasant and battered,” Omalu says. “I was marginalized. we was ridiculed.” Doctors on a NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee bloody Omalu’s conclusions as “completely wrong” and demanded a nullification of a paper he had published.


Though he was driven out of Pittsburgh, in new years Omalu has found vindication. He maybe never felt it so deeply as he did on that morning in Lodi in Sep 2014. One of a dual visitors to his autopsy cover was Peter Landesman, a screenwriter and director. The other was Will Smith, who during 47 stays one of a world’s biggest film stars. They were there to investigate a film that would tell a story of Omalu’s struggle, and gleam a light on a NFL’s conduct mishap predicament with an impact that customarily Hollywood can provide.

If, as a impression in a film remarks, “The NFL owns a day of a week, a same day a church used to own,” afterwards Hollywood owns a rest of a weekend. The film is called Concussion. It will be expelled by Sony Pictures on Christmas Day. Says Smith, whose 22 prior cinema have grossed a sum $2.8 billion, “This is unequivocally a many agitator plan that I’ve ever worked on.”


 Says Smith, “Bennet said a unequivocally cold line: ‘The law doesn’t have a side.’ we adore football. we adore a NFL. My faith is that a information will customarily make it improved for all of us.”

While one examination of Concussion bills it as “the NFL’s biggest nightmare,” Smith’s perspective differs. “It’s not an anti-NFL movie,” he says one afternoon in early November, as he sips an espresso after a print fire in Los Angeles.

Smith is a lifelong football fan. His comparison son, Trey, played a competition in high school. “I’m a football dad,” Smith says. “The many fun I’ve ever had in my life is examination that child play.” As he deliberate holding a purpose of Omalu, though, Smith suspicion behind to a opposite component of his son’s football career. “Back afterwards we was disturbed about spinal injuries,” he says. “The judgment of permanent neurological repercussions was never a discussion. we had no idea. More than anything, we was compelled to tell a story as a parent.”

Smith was changed by Omalu’s personal journey, that of an newcomer who finds himself holding on one of his adopted nation’s many absolute institutions, and he disappears into a role. “The contortions of his face, a contractions of his facial muscles, a approach he tilts his head, his gesticulations—watching it, we suspicion somebody came, took my essence divided from me and ran with it,” says Omalu.


Smith connected with Omalu for another reason. Says Smith, “Bennet pronounced a unequivocally cold line: ‘The law doesn’t have a side.’ we adore football. we adore a NFL. My faith is that a information will customarily make it improved for all of us.”

A craving to disseminate a law customarily ranks distant down a list of Hollywood’s motivations. Almost all of a vital studios have remunerative NFL connections. “It was threading a needle,” says Landesman, who played core during Brown and is a former inquisitive journalist. “FOX couldn’t make this movie. NBC couldn’t. Disney couldn’t make it. Viacom couldn’t. So there was usually one studio to go to.”

As Landesman tells it, in a summer of 2014 Sony roughly immediately bought his just-finished script, that was formed on a 2009 GQ essay by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Smith was trustworthy within days, and a film was immature illuminated in a matter of weeks. By October, principal photography had begun in Pittsburgh.

Not all about a buildup to Concussion‘s recover has been so smooth. In early Sep The New York Times published a story headlined “SONY ALTERED ‘CONCUSSION‘ FILM TO PREVENT NFL PROTESTS, EMAILS SHOW,” that quoted communications suggested by a penetrate of a studio’s emails. The essay claimed that Sony had “found itself softening some points it competence have finished opposite a multi-billion-dollar sports enterprise.” One email from Dwight Caines, Sony’s boss of domestic marketing, read, “We’ll rise messaging with a assistance of N.F.L. consultant to safeguard that we are revelation a thespian story and not kicking a hornet’s nest.”

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Both a filmmakers and a NFL repudiate that they cooperated on a film, and that they exchanged some-more than a few early, cursory emails about it. While Landesman concedes that he cut from an early chronicle of a book a stage that decorated commissioner Roger Goodell—who is played by Luke Wilson, and who has unequivocally small shade time—he did so since he couldn’t determine a eventuality had indeed occurred, nonetheless he believes it did. (In a cut scene, Goodell receives a midnight call during his home from NFL doctors, informing him of a genocide by self-murder of former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson.)

“This movie, like all cinema formed on nonfiction stories—if we’re intelligent and if we care—goes by a clever vetting routine to be certain we tell a best, many truthful, many impactful chronicle of a story,” Landesman says.

Besides, to those who have followed a NFL’s conduct mishap crisis—via Laskas’s article, a Times’s endless coverage, a Frontline documentary League of Denial and many other media outlets, including Sports IllustratedConcussion covers small new ground. What it does is tell a story of Omalu’s fight, of a predicament of former players like Webster, Strzelczyk and Waters and of a NFL’s asocial rejection of it, in an generous and mostly offensive way. Viewers competence intent to certain elements of Concussion: a adore story between Omalu and his wife, Prema (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that seems shoehorned in; a approach certain scenes seem to have been farfetched for thespian effect. But anyone who has seen a movie—which a author of a Sep Times essay hadn’t—would have difficulty desiring it had been softened.

Concussion is new as distant as a scale and reach—a Will Smith movie, expelled on Christmas—with that it tells a story, and explains a scholarship that underpins it. Says Omalu, ”The law is a truth. The law has always been a truth. But now a law is rising on a mountaintop, in good light.”

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In a NFL’s domicile on Park Avenue in New York City, past potion doors emblazoned with a difference RESPECT—INTEGRITY—RESPONSIBILITY TO TEAM—RESILIENCY, there were no circled wagons to be seen on a Tuesday morning in early December. Just 2 1/2 weeks before Concussion’s release, a league’s invulnerability opposite it had been many important for a mildness. It finished no conflict when trailers for a film were shown during a games, starting on Thanksgiving. “I don’t know if we could have or couldn’t have, yet we positively didn’t do anything to stop them from advertising,” says Jeff Miller, a NFL’s comparison clamp boss of health and reserve policy.

In his office, with Richard Ellenbogen—the conduct of neurosurgery during a University of Washington and a cochairman of a league’s Head, Neck and Spine Medical Committee—on speakerphone, Miller outlines a NFL’s greeting to a film which, to his knowledge, no one in a bureau had nonetheless seen. “We’ve been meddlesome in articulate about issues of health and reserve for a functions of improving a diversion during other levels, [and] investing in systematic investigate around those things, for utterly some time,” Miller says. “If this film offers an eventuality to publicly speak about actor health and reserve and what a league’s doing to pursue a goals that we’ve set, afterwards we acquire a conversation.”

What follows is an impressive, and dizzying, contention of all of a measures that a NFL has taken to make a diversion reduction deleterious to a players: of multimillion dollar investigate grants, and order changes, and concussion protocols, and eccentric neurologists, and girl reserve programs, all of that denote that a joining is now holding a conduct mishap problem seriously.

The subject of Case Keenum—the St. Louis Rams’ quarterback who on Nov. 22 was authorised to stay in a diversion after he was clearly concussed, struggling to get adult and wobbling on his feet—is broached. Ellenbogen, who stresses that he is not paid by a league, admits that a eventuality was an error. But he argues that a fact that it was such a important one demonstrates how distant a joining has come from a days when ESPN ran a “Jacked Up” segment, that highlighted that week’s many heartless hits and is shown, to enslaved effect, in Concussion. “I’ve examination one or dual reports from this deteriorate where we could have finished things better,” says Ellenbogen, of a reports that independent neuroconsultants now record for any group after any game. “Out of 500? Boy. If any surgeon or any alloy had a snarl rate that low, they’d be celebrated.”


But what if a problem is not usually with concussions, yet with a unequivocally inlet of a sport, and with a thousands of subconcussive hits that Bennet Omalu believes felled Mike Webster and others like him? To Dr. Ellenbogen, who points out that Omalu’s speculation stays a hypothesis, it’s a value proposition. “I honour Dr. Omalu’s opinion,” he says. “I have a unequivocally opposite perspective of this. As a practicing neurosurgeon that takes caring of kids and adults, we consider it’s many safer to get kids out there, doing exercise, personification a competition of their choice—and we can correct a risks.” (Of course, it competence be even safer to have kids practice in ways that competence not lift with them a risk of a long-term neurodegenerative condition.)

“There’s no aloft priority during a joining than a health and reserve of a sport,” says Miller. While he mentions a NFL’s 88 Plan, that has so distant supposing 210 retirees with adult to $100,000 a year to compensate for medical losses for neurological diseases, a league’s response to Concussion is clear. Its primary concentration is not on a wild past, that a film depicts, yet on a benefaction and future.

“They contend NFL is brief for ‘Not For Long.’ Well, that don’t usually mount for how prolonged you’re going to play. It stands for how prolonged you’re going to live.” —Keith McCants

If a NFL is looking forward, Keith McCants—a linebacker who played 6 pro seasons with a Buccaneers, Oilers and Cardinals—can’t assistance yet demeanour back. McCants was arrested mixed times for drug-related offenses after he left a league, due to an obsession that stemmed, he says, from drugs he was administered to keep him playing. “They shot me adult with morphine, cortisone, toradol, whatever it took to keep me on a field,” he says. “Then they kicked my donkey to a curb.”


At 47, McCants no longer goes outward during night, for fear that he will get lost, and in examination he mostly loses lane of a subject during hand. In early December, McCants attended a screening of Concussion in Atlanta. He cried via his six-hour expostulate from Tampa, romantic during a awaiting of even saying it. He cried during a movie, too, overcome during a depiction of what some players, like his aged crony and Cardinals teammate Andre Waters, had endured. “I now know since Andre killed himself, we know since Junior Seau killed himself, we know since Keith McCants wanted to kill himself,” he says.

“If we knew what we know now, if we knew giving people concussions would kill people, we would never have put on a jersey,” he says. “If we mangle a bone, that’s fine. If we mangle a knee, that’s fine. But to mangle a brain, that’s unacceptable.

“They contend NFL is brief for ‘Not For Long,'” he says. “Well, that don’t usually mount for how prolonged you’re going to play. It stands for how prolonged you’re going to live.”


“Historically, in a prolonged run, believe never creates things worse, even if it competence not feel good for a minute.” —Will Smith 

The systematic community’s grasp of football’s long-term neurological effects on a participants stays customarily in a nascent stages. CTE’s prevalence, accurate causes and biological mechanisms—why not each actor seems to humour from it—are customarily minimally understood. “There are many people that go on to unequivocally successful careers,” says Ellenbogen. “You gotta demeanour during a numerator and we gotta demeanour during a denominator.”

While Concussion is a work of advocacy, it’s also, inevitably, some-more than that. The film’s amicable media hashtag is #ForThePlayers, yet it competence also be #ForTheBoxOffice, or maybe #ForTheOscar. Smith has already been nominated for a Golden Globe.

“I was usually revelation this sold story as truthfully, beautifully and impactfully as we could,” says Landesman. “The effect of a storytelling is over my control.”


The long-term effect of that Omalu dreams? It’s not a finish of football. “If we make adult your mind to play, we would be a unequivocally initial chairman to mount beside we and support that right,” he says. But he hopes that children will be one day criminialized from participating in hit sports, like tackle football, until they have reached a age of agree and can confirm to commence a potentially dangerous activity for themselves, as with smoking and drinking.

As of early November, scarcely 40 stream and former NFL players had reached out to Smith, seeking to see a movie. To him, that portended an ideal result. “At a minimum, if a players are aware, they have a final contend of how they correlate with one another on a field,” he says. “For me, this is particularly about knowledge. Historically, in a prolonged run, believe never creates things worse, even if it competence not feel good for a minute. Bennet Omalu is not an angel. The NFL’s not a devil. It’s about a routine of change and a introduction of new, untimely information, and that’s always going to be painful.”

Adds Smith, “I consider a bequest of this film is, it illustrates and articulates what happened in a approach that is abdominal and cinematic, so we can’t omit it.” As of mid-December, though, a examination compiler Rotten Tomatoes rated Concussion reviews during 63% certain on a Tomatometer; a website—considered by many to be a many accurate source of publicly accessible box bureau projections—was presaging that a film, competing opposite a new Star Wars, would lift in a domestic sum of $55 million, and $12 million on a opening weekend. That opening transport would interpret to around 1.45 million sheet buyers, that is about 6% of a series of viewers drawn by a normal Sunday Night Football game.

Don’t design Roger Goodell to be backing adult during his internal multiplex on Christmas. “I’m guessing he doesn’t see a lot of movies, since he’s arrange of operative 24/7,” says Miller. “But if we find out from him that he intends to see it, I’ll let we know.”

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