Can a Will Smith Movie Make Football Fans Care About Brain Injuries?

Scandal-filled headlines have plagued professional football, and a lot may be riding on one feature film.

(Image: YouTube)

Sep 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Melissa Rayworth is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has also written for the Associated Press, Salon and Babble.

Back in 2009, a GQ magazine story about the brains of retired football stars caused a brief stir: A Nigerian forensic scientist had discovered what was causing still-young athletes to experience dementia, crippling depression, and early death. GQ found that the NFL refused to acknowledge his discovery, perhaps because of the money at stake when gifted athletes violently play America's favorite sport.

That story was filled with pages of evidence about the risks to players and the culpability of the NFL, but it did little to change America's love affair with pro football. In the steady trickle of news coverage since, we've seen retired players suing the NFL Players Association, conferences exploring disturbing data about concussions, and most tragically, a growing list of former players committing suicide. In 2011, Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest, leaving behind a letter asking to have his brain studied. A year later, Junior Seau shot himself the same way.

Yet the NFL and its teams remain wildly popular, taking in $1.15 billion in sponsorship revenue during the 2014 season, up 7.8 percent over 2013, according to IEG Research.

Released just days before the opening of the new football season, a compelling trailer for the movie Concussion calls for a shift in that unquestioning support of pro football. The movie, based on the GQ story, comes out in December.

Is it possible that this fact-based but fictionalized story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith, could be the catalyst that gets football fans nationwide to question their support of the NFL? Fans who generate those billion-dollar profits have yet to press the NFL into dealing aggressively with the realities of sports concussions.

Or is this movie, however compelling it might be, no more likely to affect America's fascination with pro football than the medical studies and real-life player suicides that fans have already heard about?

Dramatic, memorable events can play a large role in shaping our thinking, says David Myers, psychology professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. That campus is deep in the heart of Notre Dame football country, if you're keeping score, tucked between the territories of the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions. Powerful anecdotes, Myers explains in the upcoming 12th edition of his book Social Psychology, can be more compelling than statistical information in affecting our priorities.

"We fret over extremely rare child abduction, even if we don’t buckle children in the backseat," he points out, despite undeniable data on the frequency of car crashes. If Smith's performance as the crusading doctor is effective enough, it might push the concussion conversation to a level that facts and figures have not.

It wouldn't be the first time a film has delivered social change. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that the movie about eating McDonald's for a month, Super Size Me, changed people’s opinions and knowledge about fast food and health.

Sherry Hamby, professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South, agrees: "A powerful narrative is one of the best ways to shift long-standing opinions. As a scientist, I often find it frustrating that patterns and facts don't have the same impact."

"Hearts," she says, "often count more than heads."

Of course, facts won't hurt any cause or campaign. The movie will be accompanied by the release of a book by Omalu about his research. That combination of an attention-getting narrative and hard data can be enough to change even long-held opinions, Hamby said.

"The challenge," she says, "is not just showing that bad things happen but that bad results are the typical outcome."