LOS ANGELES: Will Smith hopes his new film “Concussion” will jolt parents into realizing their kids’ health could be at serious risk when they sign them up to play American football.
The hard-hitting sport drama, which premiered late Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila), tells the story of Nigerian-born forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, one of the first to diagnose degenerative brain disease in former players of the National Football League.
“For me more than anything, I’m a football dad,” the 47-year-old Smith said as he attended the screening of the movie, which opens on Christmas Day.
“I love football. For me, this is about informing parents and delivering the truth and people will decide what they want to do with that,” said the actor — who has been tipped for an Oscar for his role as the crusading Omalu.
The much-anticipated film has revived an ongoing debate on brain injuries in the most popular and most watched sport in America.
A recent study of deceased NFL players found 96 percent of those tested suffered from the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
“I did not know when I watched my son play football in high school for those four years, I did not know there was a potential long-term neurological issue,” said Smith, a father of three.
“I’ve talked to professional football players and people who have been in the game a long time that don’t know the information that is in this film.”
‘I did not know’
Omalu himself attended the premiere, along with family members of deceased football players who had suffered from CTE.
The pathologist, who received a standing ovation after the screening, said he hoped Hollywood’s decision to take on his story would help raise awareness of the condition.
The degenerative disease, resulting from repeated blows to the head, can lead to nausea, memory loss and dementia.
“I thought Hollywood would be the most potent medium to portray the truth,” said Omalu, who knew nothing about football when he performed his first autopsy on a retired player in 2002 while working in Pittsburgh.
Omalu’s work was first widely publicized in the 2013 Frontline documentary “League of Denial.”
Concussions have become a major injury concern for the National Football League, which in April agreed to pay $765 million to about 5,000 former players over health claims.
Beyond the NFL, a wider sample of players from all levels of American football, who played either in high school, college, semi-professionally or professionally, found CTE in the brain tissue of 131 out of 165, or 79 percent.
More recently, safety standards in high school football have faced renewed scrutiny after the deaths of eight young players in separate incidents since early September.
The wildly popular sport is played by 1.1 million high school students in America and, according to some reports, two-thirds of US adults are glued to their TV on Sunday to watch football.
Professional American football is one of the most lucrative sports worldwide, generating some $10 billion in annual revenues. The country’s 32 teams are worth some $45 billion.