Will the Real Bennet Omalu Please Stand Up?

Published December 21st, 2015, Uncategorized

by Irvin Muchnick

 

 

On Friday, the movie Concussion, starring Will Smith with a bad West African accent as Dr. Bennet Omalu, opens at a theater near you. Like many of you, I’ll be seeing and forming my opinions about the film itself that day.

This post concludes my thoughts on the Concussion hype: what the movie promises to convey, the national public health discussion its subject and creators purport to spur. I have a high level of skepticism that the output will be anything more than the recycled, empty, football industry-enabling call for a “safer” game — a broken record as old as the Victrola.

I expect the core issue of the future of youth tackle football to be tangential at best, ignored at worst. And I don’t think such an outcome would be at all acceptable in proportion to the big screen’s aggrandizement of Smith, Omalu, director Peter Landesman, and their cronies.

In 1964, the surgeon general issued a landmark report on the hazards of smoking. By 1971, broadcast cigarette advertising was banned. Does the feedback loop of Concussion back-patters have anything analogous in mind here? If the answer is no — that they have no accountability for a reckoning until many decades or a century or more beyond the horizon — then they have swerved the game of life. They have served not social change, but, yet again, the systematic and ongoing male brain-killing game of public football.

If I prove to have short-shrifted the film’s accomplishment — because of my own ideology or promotional interests — then I’ll acknowledge that.

If, as I expect, Omalu proceeds to become essentially indistinguishable in actionable content from the pack of safety “experts” — or perhaps simply complains at a later date that he got used by the Hollywood star-making machine — then I hope he will acknowledge that.

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Earlier this month, Omalu wrote a direct and powerful New York Times op-ed essay, “Don’t Let Kids Play Football.” It’s nails. If you haven’t already read it, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/07/opinion/dont-let-kids-play-football.html?ref=topics&_r=1.

But how consistent with what Omalu has been doing is what he has been saying? Not very, in my view. Until shown otherwise, I will consider the Times piece a rhetorical vacuum cleaner for credit for anything good and small that might come out of Concussion. It is a way for Omalu to put himself “over,” as they say in Tinseltown, rather than truly put himself out.

For here is what is happening in the substance of the public debate. The movie producers have a deal with MomsTeam, a football industry-defending “nonprofit” of the “Concussion Inc.” ecosystem, in which sentimental tweets are circulated for both box office promotion and organizational fundraising. Yeah, I know … great scientists and artists must be allowed the latitude to spin a good yarn without being saddled with the cheesy marketing thereof. But Omalu seems to have no problem with basking in the adulation of the same individuals and organizations that subvert and exploit his message.

Several magnitudes worse is the newly announced Bennet Omalu Foundation. The group’s board of trustees consists almost entirely of the Concussion movie creative team: CEO Giannina Scott (wife of producer Ridley Scott), Ridley Scott himself, director-writer Landesman, writer Jeanne Marie Laskas. The board also has Julian “Alec Baldwin” Bailes, the medical director of Pop Warner, who is spewing the outrageous lie — unrefuted by foundation colleagues — that there have been “no deaths in youth football.”

The giant sucking sound you hear from the Bennet Omalu Foundation is of donation dollars to the University of Pittsburgh, the leading institutional villain of the football brain injury cover-up narrative — bloody and filthy lucre as an alternative to energizing a Mothers Against Drunk Football movement. This is Tobacco Institute redux. It is inexcusable.

All the while, Omalu waves the false flag of chronic traumatic modesty. In so doing, he reduces his role from moral advocate to business-as-usual mascot.

Regarding the sideshow controversy over whether Omalu is exaggerating his role in pioneering CTE research, there is something poignant, as well as disingenuous, about what is clearly this perceived outsider-foreigner’s need to hog credit in a way that denies historical research. It makes for a better movie script to depict the aftermath of the 2002 Mike Webster autopsy as science de novo. But it was no such thing. What Omalu did, rather, was advance a bold extension of decades of others’ findings, both establishing the existence of a discrete pathology known as CTE and proving its long-suspected connection to football players as well as to boxers.

With that, let’s kill the house lights, open the curtain, and see what we can continue to make of Concussion, the movie, and Bennet Omalu, the public figure.

 

 

 

OUR SERIES ON THE “CONCUSSION” MOVIE

 

‘Concussion’ Movie’s Subject — NFL Whistleblower Bennet Omalu — Needs to Speak Out Against Disastrous Partnership with Football Industry-Friendly MomsTeam

Published November 23rd, 2015