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Will Smith’s New Film Concussion Might Make Sundays Very Awkward for the NFL This Year

Imagine you’re at a football watching party on a random Sunday in October.  You’re in a room full of grown men and women wearing NFL shirts, hats and jerseys.  The conversation is inevitably dominated by critiques of coaching decisions (e.g., “He punted on 4th and inches on the 40-yeard-line!”) as well as nervous chatter about how each person’s fantasy football team is doing (e.g., “Oh, I can’t believe I didn’t start Jeremy Maclin today.  He already has 3 touchdowns!”).  Suddenly, there is a big hit in the game you’re watching, the type of hit that the on-air announcer describes as ” a real decleater.”  The crowd hoots and hollers at the display of extreme violence before turning quiet once everyone realizes the player who got hit is still lying motionless on the ground.  Eventually, the woozy player is helped up to his feet and escorted to the sideline by the team doctor. The game cuts to commercial, and this (or a shortened version of this) comes on:

Won’t that kind of kill the mood, and cause the room to re-asses just how okay that woozy player really is?

That’s the trailer for Will Smith’s new Concussion, which is set to open on Christmas Day.  Inspired by the 2009 GQ article “Game Brain,” the film tells the real life story of how Pittsburgh-based, Nigerian-born forensics pathologist Bennet Omalu (Smith) uncovered “scientific evidence that the kind of repeated blows to the head sustained in football causes severe, debilitating brain damage” and how that evidence was silenced by the NFL.

Bennet’s fight against the NFL started in 2002.  Since then, the dirty little secret is out, with more and more retired players dying young (sometimes because of the long term effects of concussions, sometimes not) and more and more young players retiring early out of fear of the shortened life spans for football players.  Of the movie which will dramatize Bennet’s struggle, the NFL will simply say, “We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority. We all know more about this issue than we did 10 or 20 years ago. As we continue to learn more, we apply those learnings to make our game and players safer.”

WIll Smith
On the left, real life Bennet Omalu; on the right, movie star version of Bennet

In other word, things are better now than they were when Bennet first coined the medical diagnosis chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and the NFL has already moved on from the whole affair.  However, there’s another reason the NFL would seek to switch focus from past to present: No one at the NFL has actually seen Concussion yet or even read the script, although NFL communications chief Paul Hicks did ask to read the script in September 2014 but was denied.  In fact, outside of cast and crew and various executives on the Sony lot there are only 10 people who’ve been allowed to see Concussion, and they all work for Sports Illustrated.  The trailer which landed online two days ago was first released in a tweet by longtime SI reporter Peter King, which the film’s writer-director Peter Landesman explained in conversation with THR, “We’re so confident in this film and the story we’re telling that we thought it would be fascinating to [break the trailer with] the very institution at the beating heart of professional sports.”

Earlier this week, The New York Times plunged into the backlog of leaked Sony emails from last year and found what it regarded as evidence that the studio is actively fearful of the NFL’s response to the film and engaged in self-censorship as a result.  Sony was quick to point out that no one at the The New York Times has actually seen Concussion meaning they were just the latest news outlet to pass Sony’s stolen emails off as genuine journalism when they, in fact, have no way of confirming their assumptions until they’ve seen the movie.  True, although all the stolen emails about Sony’s capitulations to China over Pixels turned out to be spot-on.

Landesman was even more insistent in defending Concussion, telling THR, “These emails were taken out of context in a year-plus creative process that’s a constant negotiation.  I can tell you my concern for the NFL and the studio’s concern for the NFL was less than zero.”  However, the stolen emails did reveal that Concussion originally had a scene portraying current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (and no NFL player’s favorite person) in a very negative light, like something out of a Oliver Stone conspiracy theory movie.  Here’s what Landesman had to say about why that scene will not be in the finished film:

“I had a scene in the movie that took place in a room that I wasn’t in, [depicting] a conversation that took place between people that I didn’t talk to.  I knew that scene took place and that conversation took place, but I didn’t hear it myself. I knew about it because I talked to someone who was in that room. I wanted to be responsible and careful, and I didn’t want to be defamatory. So, we took that out. And by the way, the movie doesn’t need it because the movie is so strong.”

Translation: maybe Goodell won’t sue them now.  Plus, the movie didn’t need the scene anyway.

While all of this plays itself out in the press, the more immediate concern is where Sony intends to place its TV ad dollars.  That scenario I described at the start of the article is a very real possibility.  Accoding to THR, the NFL will not try to stop Sony from placing the trailer during any of the league’s games.  Sony won’t say what it’s planning one way or another.  Landesman doesn’t even know if NFL fans will be doused with the cold water to the face that is the trailer for Concussion during games this season.  He concluded, “Everyone who has seen this film says the same thing: ‘Not only did they not pull any punches, but the opposite is true.”

So, while you watch a game which goes to commercial while team doctors administer concussion tests to an injured player you could theoretically be presented with a trailer for a movie reminding you how hard the NFL supposedly fought the medical recommendation to keep those types of players from returning to the field.  That is, of course, if you still watch commercials during football games.

Source: THR


  1. First of all, very well written article. After my first viewing of this trailer I had a lot of the same thoughts, however, as a fan of football these quickly faded away. The truth of the matter is that all football fans know what effects these bone rattling hits can have. In fact, it’s amazing to think that there was a time where people may not have put the dots together. I mean it’s fairly obvious that two men crashing into each other with the force and velocity at which football players of all levels do should in the long run have some repercussions to their health.

    Thing is, because we all know this I really don’t think this movie will have ANY effect on the football fan who tunes in every Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Thursday night respectively. It won’t for me. I personally can’t wait for the first game of the Eagles regular season. It’s not that we don’t care as fans for these athletes. They set the example. Yes, precautions have been taken with new helmets and such, but these players know the risks and they continue to play. Should we not continue to watch? I won’t lose any sleep over it. We’re talking about men who get paid millions of dollars to play a kids game. It’s not work. It’s a kid’s game being played on a very large scale.

    The fact that those who made the movie are stressing that they did not “pull any punches” is also troubling. Let the film speak for itself. I think it’s a fascinating topic, but I also think that the NFL is such a large entity with enough power and money behind it that if they didn’t want this movie made..then it wouldn’t be made. Just one opinion, but either way I’m very much looking forward to this film. Between this and Suicide Squad it looks like a great film for Will Smith.


    1. I imagine that if Sony places Concussion trailers during games it will be most awkward for the casual fans. The hardcore football fans probably already watch plenty of ESPN and NFL Network and listen to some sports radio. I wouldn’t quite place myself in that category of hardcore fan, but I am a lifelong Kansas City Chiefs fan. I remember when all of this first started going down in the press in 2009 up until the present. I have watched multiple Outside the Lines, Real Sports, Sports Reporters, NFL Network Roundtable Discussions, etc. segments on this very topic. Everyone who covers football has already talked about this. So, to the people who’ve already been exposed to all of that coverage I imagine the ads for Concussion will mostly be an inconvenience instead of anything eye-opening, not a case of “OMG, I can’t believe this…” but instead, “Yeah, I know. Haven’t we moved on already?”

      That being said, the actual film itself might be a different story. It’s kind of like how for anyone who cared to look into it there was plenty of damning information out there about Scientology, multiple documentaries, etc. However, for anyone who never bothered with any of that Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary Going Clear was stunning. The ads for Concussion might not do much, but the film itself could be eye-opening, not that it will stop a significant amount of people from watching football much in the way Going Clear didn’t stop anyone from seeing Tom Cruise in Rogue Nation. But I guess I can’t say that for sure because just like almost everyone else in the world I haven’t actually seen Concussion yet. Regardless of its impact on the sports world and sports fans, I just hope it’s a good movie, not too strident in its narrative of one immigrant doctor taking on “the system.” I agree that this along with Suicide Squad could be a good boost for Will Smith, especially after Focus and After Earth.

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