While the new Will Smith film Concussion might lead some to question their support of American football, the forensic pathologist who first drew attention to the dangers of repeated head trauma suffered by the players says he wanted his findings to "advance football".
The film, which screened at the Dubai International Film Festival last month, is based on the true story of Dr Bennet Omalu, who stumbled upon an insidious brain disorder affecting players. His journey began in 2002 with an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers centre Mike Webster.
“I had this hunger in me to use my knowledge to become a voice for the voiceless, to make a difference, just like Will Smith,” Omalu says.
Smith says the script enlightened him about the dangerous effects of multiple concussions.
“When I met Bennet and went through the science, I was terrified, as a parent,” Smith says. “My son played football for four years and I had no idea this was an issue.”
Omalu studied the brains of NFL players who had died under strange circumstances, including Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Andre Waters, who are depicted in the film.
Strzelczyk was involved in a head-on car crash on the wrong side of a motorway while evading police, Waters shot himself in the head and Terry Long died from drinking antifreeze.
Omalu found that the former players were suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, an asymptomatic brain disease. The effects don’t show up until later in life and manifest as psychotic episodes, dementia and suicide.
CTE had been researched in boxers and identified in football and rugby players, but Omalu’s work was the first linking it to American football players.
After researching the role, Smith remains a football fan – but says he feels different about the sport.
“I wanted to be a part of it just to deliver information to parents and to players because if I didn’t know, I felt a lot of other people didn’t know,” Smith says.
Former St Elsewhere and Treme star David Morse, who plays Webster in the film, found the role a challenge.
“[He] was adored by people, the city of Pittsburgh, but what we see is a man at the end of his life with dementia,” Morse says. “He’s gluing his teeth in with Super Glue, tasering himself. He’s just in a kind of hell at the end of his life.
“I’m fascinated by the game – but I can’t watch it the same way. I still watch it but I understand way more about what’s happening to these people on the field.”
The National Football League initially attacked the study. Morse sees it as a dark time for the game. “The NFL at that time period should not look good,” he says.
“They were doing the wrong thing – they were trying to crush anybody, Dr Omalu, who wanted to talk about it. Now, they are starting to do the right thing and thank goodness they are.
“Nobody wants the game to go away, but there needs to be an awareness and an honesty with players and parents of young children playing the game.”
Concussion is in cinemas now