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Christmas Day's opening of Sony Picture's "Concussion" may have been a gift to some moviegoers, but it also served as a lump of coal in the stocking of the National Football League (NFL).
The film stars Will Smith — who's getting Oscar buzz for his performance — as Forensic Pathologist, Bennet Omalu, the first physician to tackle the degenerative effects of repeated head trauma in pro football.
Ahead of the theatrical release of "Concussion," CNBC's "Fast Money " anchor Melissa Lee spoke with NFL Hall of Famer, Warren Moon, about the punishing injuries he sustained on the gridiron. "I did have six concussions while I played the game, and I think about my own health every day," he said in an interview.
In efforts to help fellow NFL alums, Moon began working with the law firm Heard Robbins Cloud to establish ForThePlayers.com, where retired NFL athletes can seek free legal consultation.
"I want to help thousands of former players determine if they're eligible for compensation from the NFL," said Moon. "But they have to know the protocol in order to get it. There are generations of [players] suffering and we need to take care of those guys."
Earlier this year, the NFL created a settlement for an estimated $1 billion with 5,000 former players who suffered from head trauma. Thousands of NFL veterans have developed Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS, Dementia and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. According to Boston University, CTE contributed to a reported 87 deaths among retired athletes—most recently, Frank Gifford.
Moon takes issues with the settlement, which is currently under appeal, saying that the deal does not cover symptoms of CTE. Symptoms include depression, seizures and mood disorders. As CTE can only be diagnosed after a player has died, these symptoms are the only indication that a living player needs help.
"There's no question that [the NFL] stuck their head in the sand for a lot of years," Moon added, addressing how the league has handled concussion issues in the past.
Following Boston University's findings, and ahead of the release of "Concussion", the NFL responded to CNBC by pointing to current efforts. "We welcome any conversation about player health and safety. Broader and deeper awareness of these issues will positively impact all athletes. The NFL has made numerous changes to the game to enhance player health and safety at all levels of football," it said in a statement.
Indeed, the league has adopted over 30 safety-related rules in the last decade, but some question whether that is enough. The question remains whether America's wealthiest sports league—with an estimated revenue of $11 billion in 2014—will be in jeopardy if players can't be protected?
Probably not, but it's clear that concussions still continue to be a problem, even with new injury protocols. For the last several seasons, PBS's "Frontline" has kept a running tally of concussions in the NFL. To date, current players have sustained over 165 concussions this season, which has already surpassed last season's total of 123.
Receiving care remains an uphill battle for many retired athletes. Attorney David Meltzer, who is working with Moon, believes thousands more are in need and may not know it.
"All retired NFL players need to get registered" for a medical review with the league, he said. "With over 20,000 retired players eligible to qualify for this settlement, only 5,000 have hired an attorney."
"I think the changes that we've made have had real results. And we're seeing that...it's safer," he said. "But injuries are part of active sports and they're certainly part of football. Football is a contact sport."
It's unclear if "Concussion" will have a meaningful impact, but one thing is for sure: The League, the players, the fans, movie studios, and even American presidents will continue to debate the game's safety issues. The question is, will the NFL continue to bear the financial toll of these injuries —or is there anything more than can realistically be done in a sport as physically punishing as football?