'Concussion' takes few detours from reality, former Steelers physician says
December 26, 2015 12:00 AM
Dr. Julian Bailes attends the world premiere of "Concussion" at TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on Nov. 10.
Melinda Sue Gordon
In a scene from the film "Concussion," Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith, left, meets with, Dr. Julian Bailes, played by Alec Baldwin, and Dr. Joseph Maroon, played by Arliss Howard. Dr. Omalu urges Dr. Maroon to tell the truth about injuries to NFL players.
By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the relative world of Hollywood, “Concussion” appears to capture reality with few detours.
The film mirrors basic science behind the brain disease CTE, said Dr. Julian Bailes, the former Steelers team physician played by Alec Baldwin. Dr. Bailes cheered the portrayal of the disease’s emergence in 2002, calling “very accurate” the plot that filmmakers shot in Pittsburgh.
But “Concussion” isn’t perfect, especially in its portrait of longtime Steelers neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon, Dr. Bailes said in an interview this week. While the screenplay shows Dr. Maroon resisting Bennet Omalu, the former Allegheny County pathologist who discovered CTE, Dr. Bailes said Dr. Maroon was neither an obstructionist nor a villain.
“Once [Dr. Maroon] understood what we were dealing with, he really brought it to the NFL. That shone a light and helped us get to the bottom of the science and ultimate acceptance,” said Dr. Bailes, a neurosurgeon who collaborated with Dr. Omalu. “He facilitated that once he understood what we were dealing with.”
Dr. Maroon declined a Post-Gazette interview request, according to UPMC, where he works. “Concussion” director Peter Landesman defended the Sony Pictures film released Friday, terming it “an artistic and cinematic representation.”
“We went out of our way to make sure we were right and to make sure no one would be unduly injured by the story we were telling,” Mr. Landesman said. During a phone interview, he pointed in part to Dr. Maroon’s role on the former NFL Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, which critics have accused of downplaying critical information.
In the film, Dr. Maroon’s character implies that Dr. Omalu wants “to fold up” the NFL. The nighttime confrontation occurs in a Pittsburgh restaurant with Arliss Howard as Dr. Maroon.
“If you continue to deny my work, the world will deny my work. But men — your men — continue to die, their families left in ruins,” says Dr. Omalu’s character, played by Will Smith. “Tell the truth.”
Although Dr. Bailes said there was no such real-life restaurant scene, Mr. Landesman said a similar gathering took place elsewhere. He believes the actual meeting happened in a UPMC office, but for effect he recast the venue as an establishment with a Heinz Field view, Mr. Landesman said.
“It’s not a Wikipedia entry. It’s a feature film that needs to be beautiful and poetic,” he said.
In 2006, Dr. Maroon said he thought that Dr. Omalu employed “fallacious reasoning” to explain the suicide of former Steelers lineman Terry Long. Dr. Omalu blamed the June 2005 death on CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, that he said stemmed from Mr. Long’s athletic career.
Dr. Omalu first spotted CTE in late Steelers center Mike Webster. Incidence rates remain unclear for the degenerative disease, whose symptoms can include memory loss, confusion and aggressive tendencies that may turn up years after repeated concussions or other head trauma.
“I think CTE belongs to Pittsburgh,” said Dr. Omalu, who spoke at a “Concussion” screening on the South Side. A foundation bearing his name partnered this month with the University of Pittsburgh, where researchers want to explore risk factors and possible treatments.
"Together, if we choose to work together, we could do unimaginable things,“ Dr. Omalu said with a smile. ”I learned that from Hollywood."
Adam Smeltz: email@example.com, 412-263-2625 or on Twitter @asmeltz.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.