This is just a sampling of the headlines that followed after Sony released it’s trailer for its film, Concussion. You can watch the trailer below.
The film centers on the true story of Dr. Bennett Omalu, a Pittsburgh-based forensic pathologist and neuropathologist who discovered a link between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in people who have suffered numerous concussions, and retired NFL players who had committed suicide, notably former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters.
The trailer makes it look like a whistle blowing epic akin to Silkwood, complete with Will Smith’s “For-Your-Consideration” tackling of Omalu’s Nigerian accent to the Oscar-worthy supporting cast right down to the mysterious car following one of the good guys trick. From this trailer, you can see why all those news outlets thought that the film would be trouble for the NFL.
However, the NFL has nothing to worry about. Because Sony was willing to water down the film to appease the league, going so far as to offer to work with an NFL rep to point out any problematic points.
The New York Times’ Ken Belson reviewed the Sony Hack (a gift that will be giving journalists gifts for years), focusing on e-mails Sony sent about Concussion back in 2014. Those e-mails paint a different picture than the one painted by the trailer above:
In dozens of studio emails unearthed by hackers, Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league.
“Will is not anti football (nor is the movie) and isn’t planning to be a spokesman for what football should be or shouldn’t be but rather is an actor taking on an exciting challenge,” Dwight Caines, the president of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, wrote in an email on Aug. 6, 2014, to three top studio executives about how to position the movie. “We’ll develop messaging with the help of N.F.L. consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.”
(A Sony spokeswoman, who did not make Mr. Caines available for an interview, said late Tuesday, after this article was published, that the consultant cited in Mr. Caines’s email was not an N.F.L. employee, but was hired to deal with the N.F.L.)
Another email on Aug. 1, 2014, said some “unflattering moments for the N.F.L.” were deleted or changed, while in another note on July 30, 2014, a top Sony lawyer is said to have taken “most of the bite” out of the film “for legal reasons with the N.F.L. and that it was not a balance issue.” Other emails in September 2014 discuss an aborted effort to reach out to the N.F.L.
The topic of concussions is not a happy one for the NFL to discuss. They are just two years removed from the league begrudgingly settling a lawsuit with over 4,800 former players over the NFL’s concussion protocols in the past, and since that time, the NFL has been quick to snuff any discussion of concussions, both internally (earlier this year San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired from the league at 24, after only one professional season. He specifically stated he was retiring due to the risk of brain damage. Most sports news outlets reported it as such. the league’s NFL Network tellingly gave “potential future health issues” as the reasons for Borland’s retirement) and externally (The league reportedly put pressure on ESPN to reign in Keith Olbermann after the anchor made numerous attacks against the league for its behavior, mostly in regards to the Ray Rice case, but some aimed at its stance on concussions. Some pundits think this pressure inevitably led the network to cut ties with Olbermann in July).
If the NFL was that quick to minimize talk about concussion is these minor venues, then Sony might have been right in fearing NFL reprisal if Concussion was released uncensored. However, if you are taking away the NFL’s culpability in these cases, then what is the point of the film?