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Concussion film gets criticized for its handling of Dave Duerson

The Concussion movie debuted on Friday, complete with an eleventh-hour P.R. push arising from an open invitation to all players, owners, and their families to see the film for free.

Publicity is always free, even if it’s negative. And that’s what the movie has drawn regarding its handling of the late Dave Duerson, a former player who served on the joint league-union disability board that determined whether players will receive benefits for debilitating injuries resulting from football.

The family of Duerson, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest so that his brain could be studied for the presence of Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy, claims that the film vilifies Duerson for not caring about the plight of the men whose claims he helped block.

According to the New York Times, the film creates the impression that Duerson’s lack of compassion for the struggles of Andre Waters may have contributed to Waters’ own suicide.

In one scene, Duerson tells Waters, “Got a headache? See a doctor.” In the next scene, Waters kills himself.
“What the movie doesn’t appreciate was how difficult a position he was in,” Duerson’s son, Tregg Duerson, told the Times. “You have someone on a board with a fiduciary responsibility who can’t just give out dollars for the sake of giving out dollars. I think his hands were tied.”

Former NFL player and disability board member Robert Smith recently echoed the criticism of the film on Twitter, saying that it “smears Dave Duerson and all of us who serve or served on the disability board.” Added Smith: “Filmmakers are cowards to lie about a dead man.”

Director Peter Landesman has defended the movie with a carefully-worded explanation that essentially admits that the movie doesn’t reflect the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“As we were making a feature film and not a documentary, and it’s not a Wikipedia entry, people go to movies not to digest information and data but to have an emotional experience,” Landesman told the Times. “The movie is emotionally and spiritually accurate all the way through.”

The more financially accurate explanation could be that Sony feared no liability to Duerson because, by law, the dead cannot be defamed. With the NFL, Sony was careful to ensure that the film contained nothing that would give the league a basis for litigation based on the potential argument that lies were told about the way the league handled the concussion situation and/or persons like Dr. Bennet Omalu, who eventually forced the league to confront it.

That’s why, legally, it doesn’t matter if Duerson didn’t, for example, actually tell Omalu to “get away from our game.” Any statements or actions attributed to people who are still alive could have resulted in an outcome far more troublesome and expensive than complaints from family members and friends of Duerson.

It’s no surprise that Landesman opted to portray Duerson as uncaring for those with cognitive issues, since Duerson’s own brain trauma eventually cause him to claim his own life. The irony surely makes the film a more complete “emotional experience.” But Landesman and Sony should have been committed to telling the truth not just to avoid being sued, but because a story this important demands not artistic license but the truth.

So, basically, that Will Smith “tell the truth!” scene from the movie perhaps should have been directed not only at the subject of the film but to the people who made it.