Last January, after the Seattle Seahawks staged an improbable comeback to beat the Green Bay Packers in the N.F.C. Championship Game, the Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson told the football writer Peter King, “That’s God setting it up, to make it so dramatic, so rewarding, so special.”
Wilson’s statement was a next-level version of the “all thanks to God” quotes that players regularly give to sideline reporters in the afterglow of a big win—God had not merely given him the strength to do the things he had practiced all his life but, in Wilson’s telling, had arranged the events of the game to provide for the greatest amount of narrative satisfaction. A day later, the Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, during a radio interview, offered a competing view. “I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome,” he said. “He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.”
The Lord, of course, works in mysterious ways. Two weeks later, following the Seahawks’ stunning loss to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, Wilson said that God had spoken to him in the moment after he threw the interception that lost his team the game, and explained that he had ordered the misfortune as a test. (I suspect that the Patriots’ cornerback, Malcolm Butler, has a different take on the event’s authorship.) Then, this past September, after the Packers beat the Seahawks in a regular-season rematch, Rodgers smirked during his post-game press conference and said, clearly trolling Wilson, “I think God was a Packer fan tonight.”
I was reminded of Wilson and Rodgers’s ongoing theological debate while watching “Concussion,” the new movie starring Will Smith, which is based on the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist who was among the first scientists to sound an alarm about the long-term dangers that playing football poses to the brain—and who faced fierce resistance from doctors, lawyers, and executives employed by the National Football League. “Concussion” appears, on its face, to be a story of an expert whistle-blower confronting a powerful, entrenched corporation—and there are moments when it seems to be a lesser, more earnest version of “The Insider,” from 1999, in which a scientist played by Russell Crowe takes on the tobacco industry. (“Concussion,” at several points, draws a comparison between the N.F.L. and Big Tobacco.) The movie’s release, coming just as the N.F.L. season churns toward the playoffs, was supposed to be the moment when the science of football’s concussion crisis reached its widest audience yet. But, surprisingly, the movie’s moral arguments are framed less as matters of medicine than of religious faith. It’s not a sports movie, or a medical thriller, so much as a Christian homily. And its principal question is, in a way, about just how much God cares about football.
The movie tracks broadly with the real events that inspired it. (Though it does, of course, take some liberties.) In 2002 Omalu, working in Pittsburgh, performed an autopsy on the body of Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Steelers, who died at the age of fifty, and whose final years were marked by health problems, erratic behavior, and homelessness. Omalu expected to find clear damage to Webster’s brain, but was surprised to see that it appeared normal. Curious, he performed further tests, which revealed the presence of protein deposits in Webster’s brain, which Omalu hypothesized were the result of the thousands of collisions that Webster took part in during his years of playing football. Omalu named this condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), and his findings were published in the journal Neurosurgery, in 2005. Omalu thought that the N.F.L. would be grateful to be alerted about a potential health crisis facing its players and would be eager to collaborate on further study; instead, three doctors employed by the league, part of a committee that had commissioned studies finding no clear links between football and lasting brain damage, wrote a letter to the journal questioning Omalu’s methodology and findings, and demanding that the paper be retracted. This began an extended battle between Omalu and the N.F.L.—a fight about science and, by extension, about money, power, and the future of football.
Yet “Concussion” repeatedly presents these conflicts in religious terms. In real life, Omalu is a devout Catholic, and in interviews about the movie, he has talked about the ways in which his faith has directed his work. He has also praised Will Smith, telling the Christian Post, “We met, we shared and we communed the love of God, and he also saw the light. The spirit of God also touched him.” (Smith himself has noted that his grandmother’s Christian faith inspired his performance.) Rather than simply conveying Omalu’s religiosity as an aspect of his character, though, the filmmakers shaped the entire movie as an expression of it.
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