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Will Smith's new film exposes Concussion problem for NFL

Will Smith's new movie Concussion comes to theatres on Christmas Day and it's bound to make NFL fans, players, owners and league management very uncomfortable. Sports Illustrated writer Emily Kaplan explains why.

Kaplan: The movie shows the NFL being behind on the science and trying to cover things up

Will Smith's new movie "Concussion" is getting a lot of buzz and could it be a huge headache for the NFL. We speak with Sports Illustrated writer Emily Kaplan. 6:04

Will Smith's new movie comes to theatres on Christmas Day and it's bound to make NFL fans, players, owners and league management very uncomfortable. Concussion tells the story of a Nigerian immigrant to the U.S., a doctor, who discovers the damage that repeated hits to the head have done to former NFL players. 

Emily Caplan is a writer at Sports Illustrated and the website The Monday Morning Quarterback. She saw the film with a group of 70 former NFL players. You can listen to her interview with the CBC by clicking or tapping the play button at the top of this page or read an edited and abridged transcript of the interview below.

Emily Kaplan, writer: Sports Illustrated, The Monday Morning Quarterback

Tell us about Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born doctor who took on the NFL?

He's an immigrant from Nigeria who landed in Pittsburgh where he was a forensic pathologist. One day when he was on duty he got the body of Mike Webster, a 50-year-old former Pittsburgh Steeler who killed himself. As he's performing the autopsy he notices something in the brain isn't right. He runs more and more tests, a lot on his own dime. He discovers something he calls CTE, [ED  note: While this is what he movie depicts there is debate about whether he actually discovers CTE] which he believes Mike Webster and other players contracted while playing in the NFL. It's something that led to a lot of their demise in their body and their minds.

A Canadian wrestler from Edmonton, Chris Benoit, died after killing himself, his son and his ex-wife in 2007. Another former professional wrestler, Chris Nowinski, who was a Harvard grad with a BA in sociology, asked for an examination of Benoit's brain. Tests discovered extensive damage due to concussions. What does the movie say about how the NFL is handling concussions?

Nowinski has done really valuable work with brains of NFL players as well in Boston. The movie shows a pattern of the NFL being behind on the science and not being proactive and trying to cover things up. The movie shows them trying to discredit Dr. Omalu. Omalu is baffled. He wonders 'why wouldn't they want to work with me. I just don't understand.'

You went to a screening of Concussion with 70 former NFL players. What were their thoughts on the movie?

It was uncomfortable because it names names. It assigns dialogue and details to real people. It was last month in Atlanta when I was sitting in the theatre with these players. It was especially uncomfortable because these were men they knew. These were their friends. They were seeing a very dark time in their lives. And they were realizing, perhaps, their own role and what they knew or didn't know when they played and how this could effect them.

Tell us about one former linebacker, Keith McCants, you spoke with and how he felt about his own role in, potentially, injuring other players.

This was the most powerful interaction I had. McCants is a former number one pick but he's had a lot of problems financially but also with his body and his mind. He comes out of the theatre, he's 47-years-old, and he's using a cane and he's hunched over this bench, crying. He says "when I watched that movie I realized we were paid to give concussions. We were paid to kill people. And if I had known that, I never would have put on the jersey."

Why hasn't the NFL been more active in efforts to protect its athletes?

It's important to note that a lot of the events in the movie happened over a decade ago. The NFL has made great strides in the last ten years like banning the head-to-head hits, minus the O'Dell Beckham incident, but also pouring millions of dollars into research. They are finally admitting that they do need to look into this. Is that enough? Does that make the sport absolutely safe? That's for the general public to decide.

What does this say about the relationship NFL owners and management have with their players — the way they view their players?

A big scene in the movie shows that players are viewed as dispensable. They are not viewed as human beings so much as men who could put on a uniform and play a sport. I don't know if all owners felt that way and that was totally the attitude. I'd like to think we have changed a little and started to be more concerned about the people wearing the jerseys and delivering the big hits every Sunday. 

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