Concussion a Good Opening Gambit
Shana and I attended an advance screening of the movie Concussion, with a group of sports writers and newscasters. Will Smith gave a compelling performance as Bennet Omalu, and his quest to determine and understand the cause of a specific type of brain damage, later named CTE, first discovered in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler, Mike Webster. This was Omalu’s movie and his story, based on the 2009 GQ exposé, Game Brain by Jeanne Marie Laskas. This was not a documentary.
The title for the film, “Concussion” is misleading. The film is not about concussions and the failure on the part of the league to inform players about the signs and symptoms of concussions, the need to refrain from returning to play before a player is healed, or the potential life-long consequences of a concussion. It is a film about the work of Bennet Omalu and his efforts to understand Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
Importantly the film is based upon a true story, but is not a complete story. It is an excellent presentation of the path Omalu took and the painstaking investigation into the cause Mike Webster’s death. Omalu’s dogged pursuit of answers led to the discovery of the connection between football and brain damage and opened the door to further research. The movie indicated his conflict with the NFL in accepting this information, which the NFL still disputes.
This movie opens the door to a more important conversation, about trauma and brain damage that must continue. The cinematic decisions about the portrayals of different characters and the complete omission of any reference to the Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston, the past and current role of Commissioner Goodell and the NFL marketing department in deflecting criticism were interesting choices made by the film’s writer and director.
It was a compelling introduction for the public to the health issues generated by trauma in football. This theme must be expanded. If this movie provokes a national conversation about the larger issues associated with all types of brain damage, from football, other sports and everyday accidents, then it has been a great public service. It would be misleading, if however, it leaves the impression that the problems have been remedied or that the only public health concern is CTE. This is the tip of the iceberg of the full-range of chronic life-altering effects of concussions.
Brain injury is a chronic condition with life-long consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), each year there are over 200,000 visits to emergency departments by children under the age of 19 suffering concussion related problems from organized sports. Omitted from these statistics are visits to urgent care facilities, physicians’ offices, and cases where concussion is not the principal diagnosis. The CDC estimates that the accurate number is between 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports related concussions documented each year! This is a true public health crisis. Labeling a condition does not address treatment issues and how we, as a society, address the impact of a chronic condition that has consequences for families and society.
We applaud the efforts of all those involved in making this important film, and hope it engenders continued investigation and research into not only prevention, but improved identification and treatment options that will assist this vulnerable population.
SHANA DE CARO, ESQ. is a member of the Board of Directors of the Brain Injury Association of America and immediate past chair of the American Association for Justice Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group.
MICHAEL V. KAPLEN, ESQ. is a Professorial Lecturer in Law teaching the only course in traumatic brain injury law at The George Washington University Law School, a member and immediate past chair of the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Coordinating Council, three term president of the Brain Injury Association of New York State and a past chair of the American Association for Justice Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group.
DE CARO & KAPLEN, LLP is a New York based law firm with a focus on representing victims of traumatic brain injury throughout the nation. Shana and Michael are frequently invited to lecture attorneys and public advocacy groups nationwide on the legal issues pertaining to brain injury, public health concerns and the impact of brain injury on the lives of its victims.
Shana and Michael authored the New York Law Journal expert column on brain injury law and the chapter on brain injury law in the special issue of Psychiatric Clinics of North America.