The NFL seems to be making headlines daily. Some people (and players) view the NFL as the evil empire that controls the most popular sport on American television. Its reputation certainly has not improved as a result of its handling of “Deflategate” and its part in the concussion lawsuit brought by 5,000 former NFL players.
In fact, the issue of concussions is raised in a new movie released by Sony Pictures Entertainment starring Will Smith. Interestingly, Sony “softened” the movie, due out in December, in order to avoid the wrath of the NFL.
That move indicates both how powerful the league is and how damaging the concussion issue is to its product.
The movie, simply entitled “Concussion,” focuses on the death and dementia professional players have suffered from repeated blows to the head. It also emphasizes the NFL’s efforts towards covering up its knowledge of concussion-related diseases and on the research of the first scientists to discover and disclose the problem. Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose research led to the diagnosis of C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease that develops as a result of multiple hits to the heads. Recent suicides of former NFL players has brought heightened scrutiny upon the NFL for its handling of the situation.
The reports that Sony tweaked the movie came as a result of the major hack of Sony studio emails that were published recently on WikiLeaks. The president of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, Dwight Caines, wrote in an August 2014 email that, “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 [the] NFL consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.”
Sony representatives maintain that the studio was in no way bowing to the NFL but rather wanted to make sure the movie accurately portrayed both the facts and the actions of individuals - rather than portray the NFL as a corrupt organization. Sony claims that it did not want to take too much creative license because it wanted to maintain the credibility of the movie - and not later be criticized for painting an exaggerated or untrue story.
The movie’s writer and director, Peter Landesman, stated in an interview that, “We don’t want to give the NFL a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie.” He added that, “There 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.” He further emphasized that, “There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the NFL.”
It is not uncommon for companies to be wary of the NFL’s reaction to products or programming. In 2013, the NFL complained that ESPN was producing “League of Denial,” a documentary regarding the league’s response to the dangers of concussions and head trauma. ESPN produced the documentary with Frontline. After the NFL’s request, ESPN stopped working on the project, but it was later broadcast by Frontline.
In 2004, NFL complained to the Walt Disney Company, the parent company of ESPN, about a television series that portrayed a very repugnant depiction of professional football players. The show was not renewed for a second season.
In response to “Concussion,” the NFL commented only that it welcomes attention to safety and health issues. “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 safe.”
Still, it probably is not a good idea to take on the evil empire. Sony certainly seems to think so.