On Christmas, the National Football League will be gearing up for the following day's NFC East game, where the Philadelphia Eagles will take on the Washington Redskins. But they'll also be facing a fight on another front: "Concussion," the Columbia Pictures film that shines a light on the League's problems with debilitating head trauma.
"Concussion" focuses on Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), who stumbled upon Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in 2002 when former Pittsburgh Steelers center -- and Hall of Famer -- Mike Webster died seemingly healthy, but homeless and destitute, under mysterious circumstances. Omalu's years of research that followed exposed not only a disease that is destroying the brains of potentially thousands of otherwise healthy current and former football players, but the many attempts from the NFL to suppress and discredit this information.
However, when MTV News decided to check out the facts versus the fiction of the movie (they're mostly all facts, by the way), one of the film's omissions clearly stood out: Dr. Omalu got the CTE ball rolling, but it's someone else -- a woman -- who is currently leading the movement.
Her name is Dr. Ann McKee, and she's not only the director of the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center at Boston University, she also very recently tested 91 NFL players' brains for CTE. 87 of them tested positive. Any article you read about CTE from the late 00's on, she's mentioned, because she's the one testing the brains. McKee, not Omalu, is currently the main brain (pun intended) behind CTE -- and given that neuroscience is an almost astonishingly male-dominated field, that's a pretty historic accomplishment.
Grantland, for example, called her "The Woman Who Would Save Football," and the Frontline documentary "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis" -- which covers much of the material found in "Concussion," and then some -- featured her equally unpleasant interactions with the NFL, heavily. So, why leave her out of the most important mainstream coverage of the issue yet?
"It’s a bit strange that the story centers on Omalu when Ann McKee at Boston University has been doing this research for just as long, but a film about one of the leading doctors in this field, and how the largest professional sports entity in the United States continues its attempts to discredit his findings, keeps the drum beating," Wired wrote in their review of the film.
And that's exactly it: "Concussion" chooses to keep that dramatic drum beating by zoning in on Omalu's particularly emotional story -- we see him falling in love with his wife, for example, and there's a strong central theme about how much it means to him to become an American -- to make the science stuff easier to digest... But the movie probably doesn't need that focus. This is the kind of story that doesn't need the proverbial sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll to keep its audience invested, because the literal insanity of the science (CTE sufferers lose their minds) speaks for itself.
The fact that McKee found CTE in the brain of 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania lineman Owen Thomas in 2010, and 17-year-old Spring Hill, Kansas high school running back Nathan Stiles in 2012, for example, holds weight. The fact that Thomas' mother testified at the congressional hearings shown over the "Concussion" end credits as a result of McKee's findings, also holds weight. The fact that these hearings resulted in McKee's brain bank getting a $1 million donation from the suddenly interested in covering their own butts NFL... Well, you get the point.
Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
It's not like McKee doesn't come with some cinema-worthy stories of her own. McKee is a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan with conflicting opinions about what her research means to her favorite sport, which is pretty damn juicy -- especially since it was she who found CTE in the brains of college and high school players, meaning the the NFL might very soon have a problem on their hands with concerned parents across America.
Add that to McKee's insistence in "League of Denial" that, when she was called in to meet with the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee in 2009, she was met with sexism and mistrust from a room full of male doctors, then you have a pretty damn interesting story, one that perhaps should have been told in "Concussion," in addition to Omalu's story.
(To Sony Pictures' credit, "Concussion" is razor focused on Omalu's side of the research, and much of what McKee is working on extends into the present, far beyond the timeline presented in the film. So dramatically, we understand the need for the focus; though it does ignore certain real world implications.)
That said, McKee seems to be far more concerned with understanding what causes CTE in some players and not others, as well as in developing a baseline test for CTE in the living, than appearing in a major motion picture. ("While we were not involved with the film 'Concussion,' we hope it raises awareness of the importance of CTE research, including the need for people to participate in studies while they are alive to help discover methods of diagnosing CTE during life, as well as the critical gift of brain donation," her program told MTV News in a statement.)
But during a time when the critical lack of female faces behind and in front of the camera is at the forefront of discussions about Hollywood -- and same goes for the extremely low numbers of women working in scientific fields -- isn't it curious that McKee wasn't invited to the game at all?
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