Concussion NFL controversy

Last week brought the first trailer for the professional football set drama Concussion starring Will Smith. The movie doesn’t arrive until Christmas Day when we’re well into the next season of football, but there’s already controversy surrounding the film due to some cuts that Sony Pictures reportedly made to the film in order to avoid clashing with the NFL.

For those who don’t know, Concussion follows Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist who discovers the first case of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease) in a pro football player. The doctor tries to alert the public to his findings, but the NFL denies his conclusions and has stopped his efforts to get the organization to address these problems at every turn.

The controversy that has surfaced comes from e-mails between Sony Pictures Entertainment, director Peter Landesman and Will Smith’s representatives where they discuss how to make the movie without antagonizing the NFL or “kicking the hornet’s nest” as one e-mail puts it. Find out more about the Concussion movie NFL controversy below!

First of all, if you need a better idea of how the film is presented, watch the trailer:

The New York Times revealed tidbits from e-mails that seem to show Sony Pictures discussing “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.” It sounds like the studio might be getting a little soft with their drama that otherwise might have sparked some problems for the NFL.

For example, one August 6, 2014 e-mail from Dwight Caines, the president of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, said:

“Will [Smith] 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. We’ll develop messaging with the help of NFK consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.”

In addition, the report also says this:

Another email on Aug. 1, 2014, said some “unflattering moments for the NFL” 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 NFL and that it was not a balance issue.” Other emails in September 2014 discuss an aborted effort to reach out to the NFL.

However, when you talk to director Peter Landesman about the changes that were made to the project, he says that the material that was deleted ends up making the movie “better and richer and fairer.” And when you hear him explain his reasoning, it doesn’t sound unreasonable:

“We don’t want to give the NFL a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie. here were things that might have been creatively fun to have actors say that might not have been accurate in the heads of the NFL or doctors. We might have gotten away with it legally, but it might have damaged our integrity as filmmakers. We didn’t have a need to make up anything because it was powerful and revelatory on its own. There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the NFL”

And considering the fact that there are a lot of liberties taken with certain conversations that took place, you don’t want to put too many words in characters mouths, especially when they’re based on real people, to taint the integrity of the true story being told. If you want evidence of something that was cut from the movie, check out THR’s recap of a scene involving NFL commissioner Roger Goodell right here.

Concussion - Will Smith

Landesman also took the time to speak with EW about the controversy that has erupted, where he says that the movie didn’t just set out to attack the football organization:

“This is not a movie that is intended to take down the NFL or destroy football. I love football. I played it, into two years of college. And our intent with reaching out to [Sports Illustrated writer] Peter [King, who launched the film’s trailer] was, this is a move that all audiences can watch, enjoy, learn from, but also be mesmerized by what I think is actually a ground-breaking performance, maybe the best performance Will Smith has ever given.

And we were reaching out to America’s biggest sports institution to be inclusive. So this isn’t a take-down piece. That being said, Peter King, who is, as you said, the insider of insiders, the fact that he’s embraced this movie, loved it, was eager to write about, was eager to be the one to introduce it to the world, I think that says an enormous amount.”

Landesman also points out the fact that Sony didn’t really feel obligated to treat the NFL well because “they’re the only studio without broadcast relationships with the NFL.” That’s a good point since there have been times previously when the NFL has made a stink about how they’re portrayed in certain productions about this same issue. For example, the NFL complained to ESPN about their work with Frontline on a documentary about how the league responded to head trauma dangers, and the network stopped working on the project, though it still ended up getting broadcast.

However, the lack of Sony’s connection with the NFL doesn’t really matter though since they could still easily have sued or created some problems for the studio in the future, especially when it comes to advertising their movies during major football games and things of that nature. But still, the director (unsurprisingly) stands by the studio that signs his checks:

“…the studio really courageously was supportive. There’s no way to tell the story without showing real football, without showing real football players, to get the texture and the understanding and the tremendous violence inside the game. So it became an imperative for us to be able to do it. What I was told by the studio was, ‘You’re protected. We’re behind you. This will be fine.’ And I was allowed to do it.”

At this point, it sounds like Sony Pictures did what they had to do in order to tell the story they wanted to tell without making it look like they were attacking a powerful organization like the NFL.  Former chair-person Amy Pascal even noted in an e-mail from July of 2014, “We need to know exactly what we can and can’t do and if this is a ‘true’ story or not.”

While it’s a little disappointing that the studio maybe wasn’t as bold as they could have been with exposing the NFL’s lack of effort to address this problem, maybe it’s because this is a drama and not a documentary that they didn’t play the blame game so aggressively. After all, there’s no need to turn the entire organization into a faceless villain if there are individuals who are more to blame in the end.

As it stands, the movie is still about this dangerous problem that the NFL has with their players and it could very well still do what it set out to do despite the changes made to soften the blows dealt to the NFL. If anything, hopefully it will just bring more attention to this issue enough that people will start putting pressure on the NFL to take action.

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