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.”
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.