The NFL is no stranger to prob- lems with its image; controversies such as cheating, domestic vio- lence and the use of performance enhancers continue to cast a shad- ow over America’s most popular sport. However, perhaps no issue is as pressing or concerning as that of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease discovered by Dr. Bennet Omalu that is caused by repeated severe head trauma.
Many former professional foot- ball players have suffered from this disease as a result of the sport, fall- ing victim to severe depression and insomnia while occasionally being driven to suicide, such as in the infa- mous recent cases of Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher. The football com- munity is becoming more aware. Participation in the Pop Warner youth football program dropped 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012 due to parents’ safety concerns.
Recently some NFL stars, such as Chris Borland of the San Francisco 49ers or Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions, have retired in the prime of their lucrative careers out of concern for their future health. Although individuals throughout the football landscape recognize the danger of CTE, the incurable disease remains enigmatic to a large portion, and it has yet to be fully recognized as the epidemic that it is.
Enter Concussion, a film released last year starring Will Smith and directed by Peter Landesman that tells the story of CTE’s discovery, grounding it in illustrations of the hazards on head trauma in the NFL. Smith portrays Dr. Omalu as he investigates the effects of concus- sion trauma on former professional football players, and after discover- ing shocking results, demands NFL employees and executives to reveal the truth to the world.
Despite holding the power to paint the NFL in a negative light, the film- makers instead elected to focus on the dramatic personal struggle of Dr. Omalu as he attempted to combat the censorship of his work. While this seemed like a creative choice in order to provide a more Hollywood- friendly account of events, some startling discoveries have called this theory into question.
E-mails have surfaced between Sony executives, Landesman and Smith’s representatives that detail a conscious effort to edit or remove scenes from the movie that incrimi- nated the NFL. Landesman also confirmed that lawyers from Sony outright deleted entire portions of the film to avoid legal trouble. This treatment is unsurprising given the NFL’s history of interfering with the production of media aimed at them. The organization threatened ESPN into pulling out of the pro-
duction of a documentary focused on head trauma in football called “League of Denial” with portions deleted outright in an effort to pro- tect the NFL’s image. Additionally, they swayed ESPN to abruptly cancel their program “Playmakers” after the show began to depict the drug use and violence of NFL athletes.
This censorship is doing the NFL and the game of football no favors. It disregards all progress made towards raising awareness of CTE and pre- vents further advancements towards a safer game. To be fair, the NFL higher-ups have taken efforts to minimize the damage of the sport, including adjusted concussion pro- tocol, severe penalties for helmet- to-helmet impact and limiting full contact during practice. These have been positive steps towards ensuring safety.
These modifications indicate that they’ve already recognized the problem, so there seems to be no point in censoring it in the film, and thus from the American populace. Maintaining the league’s integrity is a petty concern when confronted with the possibility of shortened human life. The NFL needs to hum- bly acknowledge the game’s flaws and artists need to feel free to raise awareness of CTE in their works if true progress is to be made.
Altering films like Concussion only perpetuates the issue and endangers both the lives of individu- al athletes and the future of the sport as a whole. The first step towards recovery is recognizing that there is a problem. Once NFL executives, athletes and Hollywood filmmakers identify the issue, greater progress can be made in a shorter amount of time. Without knowledge of CTE, however, these steps can never be taken; if the steps aren’t taken, the danger will persist.
If incidents such as Concussion’s censorship continue to be allowed, the lack of adjustment to the game will cause more athletes to retire early and more parents to withdraw their kids from youth football. In that reality, come a few decades from now the NFL’s future would look significantly more grim; that is, if the lack of participation doesn’t remove its future entirely.