The NFL is a multi-billion dollar industry, and often uses that money and influence to shield themselves from controversy. Despite their better efforts though, word almost always gets out. There’s a laundry list of player arrests, domestic violence, DUIs, and more, all while Commissioner Roger Goodell functions as the sole, unchecked disciplinarian. But all this is secondary to a greater problem, that one forensic pathologist uncovered over a decade ago.
His name is Bennet Omalu, and in 2002 he discovered a neurodegenerative disease most prevalent in the brains of concussed football players. Known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), it’s been known to be the leading cause among retired NFL athletes of dementia, depression, and even suicidal behaviors that before didn’t exist. As Omalu said after examining the brain of Steelers offensive lineman Terry Long: “This stuff should not be in the brain of a 45-year-old man. This looks more like a 90-year-old brain with advanced Alzheimer’s.” It’s a story in need of telling, if not to outline the massive struggle Omalu underwent in the wake of his study.
The NFL of course made strides to discredit Omalu’s findings, dismissing them essentially as bad for business. Enter Peter Landesman’s Will Smith-led project distributed by Sony, Concussion. The film stars Smith as Omalu, showing his struggle in telling the world what the NFL so desperately wanted to keep under wraps. It’s a biopic that puts Smith’s considerable talent on display. More than that though, it’s subversive in its very nature. It negatively portrays an organization loved by millions, going directly against the pop culture grain to reveal a core problem with sports culture’s priorities. The NFL has an image to maintain, and that image is largely predicated on the idea that football isn’t causing degenerative brain disease.
Beneath the layers of counter-culture and dramatic interpretation, we see an interesting dynamic developing between Hollywood and the NFL. In the past, the two have worked side-by-side, evidenced by the veritable deluge of inspirational sports movies: Any Given Sunday, Remember the Titans, We Are Marshall, The Replacements, Rudy, the list goes on. Never before has any studio crossed the aisle and directly opposed not just the sport of football, but the powerful organization that, as the Concussion trailer aptly notes, “owns a day of the week.” During the Sony Hack, it was revealed that trepidation concerning this fact existed from the get go, evidenced by a leaked memo from a PR firm associated with the studio:
CONCUSSION is going to piss off the NFL. We should not try to pretend otherwise. Moreover, there is no concession we could make short of agreeing to cancel the project entirely that could possibly satisfy them. Our strategy should thus be based on the assumption that we are going to be facing a powerful adversary that may try to prevent the movie from being made—and, failing that, to ensure that as few people as possible see it or take it seriously.
It’s a strategy of non-cooperation that’s unprecedented in Hollywood. There’s no attempt here to soften the blow for the NFL, or even work in tandem with them to promote a safety message: Just clear, unequivocal opposition. Given the breadth and influence of the NFL, this doesn’t just burn the bridge between them and Hollywood, it douses it in kerosene, lines it with TNT, and firebombs it it into oblivion.
The story being told here is important. The NFL provides millions of people with entertainment on a weekly basis. But it would serve us all well to understand the high cost of this, as Hollywood surprisingly steps in to pull back the curtain on football’s dirty little secret. In the lead-up to the release of Concussion, we’d be surprised if controversy wasn’t following close behind. The NFL will likely do all they can to suppress the message of the film, but this time fighting against someone their own size in the form of the Hollywood machine. The end result of the battle is anyone’s guess, but there’s no questioning the fact that this will change the film industry as we know it.
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