“Concussion” Movie is Just the Beginning of the Brain Injury Conversation

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director
and Ann-Marie Sedor, HeadFirst Concussion Care Marketing

The much-anticipated movie “Concussion” is scheduled for release this year on Christmas Day, and already there is Oscar Award talk for Will Smith, who plays the role of Dr. Bennet Omalu. It was Dr. Omalu who discovered the tragic progressive degenerative effects of years of multiple concussions in NFL players, which he named CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

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Bennet Omalu, M.D., (L) and actor Will Smith attend the screening of the major motion film, “Concussion,” on November 23, 2015. (VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images)

The film highlights the NFL’s initial response of anger and denial. Indeed, since Dr. Omalu’s discovery in 2002, the NFL has experienced lawsuits, exposés, and finger-pointing in general. Now, 13 years later, bystanders have watched the NFL’s reaction to this scientific research unfold in a manner not unlike many stages of grief – first denial, then anger, on to bargaining and, finally, acceptance. (Although, the League is still working on fully coming to terms with this last step.)

For their part, the NFL hasn’t had much reaction to the movie, preferring to keep the controversy at arm’s length. While Dr. Omalu has vocalized his opposition to children playing football until they are legally and emotionally old enough to understand the danger of putting their brains at risk, the NFL can’t afford to lose any of their reported $7+ billion in annual revenue.

Yet, while the debate rages on, two points are patently clear from years of scientific research: that children repeatedly hitting their heads during developmental years is potentially very harmful, and that college and professional football players can face significant health consequences from playing the sport.

But just how serious are families going to be about keeping their children from playing football? Indeed, this is just the beginning of the conversation about brain injuries.

As a community-based concussion clinic that has treated more than 30,000 traumatic brain injury patients over the past three years, HeadFirst Concussion Care has seen multiple reasons for why people sustain concussions. And while football is a violent sport, soccer, lacrosse and hockey also put our youth at risk for head trauma.

And again, this is just half of the dialogue. HeadFirst’s data shows that traumatic brain injuries sustained while playing organized sports with a concussion protocol in place (high school or college sports) account for a relatively small percentage of our patients. In fact, in as many as 80 percent of our patients, concussions are sustained by other mechanisms of injury. These include non-organized sports-related injuries (bike riding, skateboarding, trampolining, skiing, pick-up or other informal recreational games), slips and falls, motor vehicle accidents, and assaults.

The key message is that the people must understand that traumatic brain injuries can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Not just kids. Not just athletes. And certainly, not just NFL players. And since anyone is at risk, everyone must understand the proper protocols for healing an injured brain.

On a final note to end the year, my holiday wish is that families, schools, and employers begin to talk about head injuries and follow traumatic brain injury protocols to keep all children and adults safe.

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‘Head Games’ Documentary Takes Detailed Look at Sports Concussions

A new documentary is being released nationwide today that could launch the concussion issue into the stratosphere. Head Games, from producer Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) and producer Bruce Sheridan, takes an in-depth look at the devastating and long-term effects of concussions in all sports.

As a feature-length film, Head Games has time to venture farther into the topic of concussion than most websites, articles or public service announcements. The trailer features compelling scenes about what professional and young athletes are willing to risk to play the game, and the consequences of their decisions.

The movie is heavily centered on the story of Harvard-educated former professional wrestler Christopher Nowinski, who, when diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, began a quest to better understand the condition. After a visit with renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Cantu, Nowinski began to learn the medical reasoning behind his traumatic brain injury.

Nowinski co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute with Dr. Cantu and, in addition to serving as SLI’s executive director, is co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (BU CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine.

Head Games calls concussions “the public health issue of our time” — a statement that’s truly more fact than opinion. Like the crises of seatbelts and smoking in years past, and their subsequent legislation, traumatic brain injuries have been called an “epidemic” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and dozens of states have related laws to protect children. Consequently, while this film is one of the first documentaries to seriously examine the issue of concussions, it will hardly be the last.

Visit the official Head Games website for more information, including a list of theaters and On Demand providers.