by Irvin Muchnick
As Bennet Omalu, hero brain researcher of the new Concussion movie, does his Hollywood star turn with bad West African accent ventriloquizer Will Smith, the generous interpretation is that Omalu is trying to thread the needle.
Omalu knows that the national public health issue of football is not the chronic traumatic encephalopathy pandemic of the National Football Leagues multimillion-dollar television entertainers. The national public health issue is the continuation of youth football. Omalu said as much last week, and said it well, in a New York Times op-ed piece.
Sadly, though, Omalu is not putting his money or his new prestige where his mouth is. Its bad enough that Omalu is enabling and all-in promoting a narcissistic and fictionalized film narrative of his fight as an NFL scientific whistleblower. In script and conception, Concussion has nothing whatsoever to do with the threshold issue of the future of public football — that is, unless you count the osmotic, subliminal consciousness-raising of the long, long, long term, in which all of us will be dead anyway. Thats showbiz.
Even more troubling to me is that the Bennet Omalu Foundation, something he does fully control, has chosen to become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. BOF Exhibit A is board member Julian Bailes, Omalus old CTE research colleague, who is Will Smiths movie sidekick, as portrayed by Alec Baldwin.
Bailes, the medical director of Pop Warner Football (or is it the medical director or the medical director or the medical director?), says there are no deaths in youth football in the last 40 years. Nil. Zilch. Like Omalu, Bailes knows full well that there are scores of such deaths. In making this truther assertion part of his regular public talking points, Bailes is either stone-cold stupid or one of the most slippery connivers of the Concussion Inc. economy.
Yet there Bailes is with the Bennet Omalu Foundation. Dont even get me started on BOFs affiliation with the University of Pittsburgh, the ground-zero institution of private-spirited traumatic brain injury research.
Matt Chaney, my comrade in tilting at the windmills of amateur sports industry excess, has been doing this a lot longer than me. Yesterday he made a telling comment: On the obvious quashing of kids football damnation in Concussion, the story of Omalu, there is a decent pile of good qualitative sport criticism that identifies the rule of sport content marketing: to propose anything about harming kids constitutes marketing disaster. You can talk about ill fate for adult players, or losing coaches, but leave the game system alone and dont portray a problem as other than benign for youth athletes. Of course, the fate of Matts own unfairly neglected underground football history, Spiral of Denial, is a good example.
Heres the complete list of Julian Bailes fellow trustees of the Bennet Omalu Foundation. Im sending this article to all of them, as well as to Omalu and Bailes themselves, and inviting comment.
Giannina Scott (foundation president and CEO, and a producer of the Concussion movie)
Jeanne Marie Laskas (author of the magazine article, and now book, on which the movie is based)
Ridley Scott (producer of the movie)
Peter Landesman (writer-director of the movie)
Bob Fitzsimmons (attorney for the estate of late Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Mike Webster)