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Sony execs softened Will Smith’s ‘Concussion’ to avoid NFL’s wrath, emails show

The NFL's influence in how the concussion story is told—or whether it's told at all—is still felt.

 

Josh Katzowitz

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Published Sep 2, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 1:18 am CDT

Continuing what has been a long and disturbing tradition, another set of movie-making executives who were dealing with the NFL about an unflattering topic reportedly have bowed under pressure and tweaked images that might have damaged the league’s image.

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This time, according to the New York Times, it was Sony executives who, while in production for the new Will Smith vehicle Concussion, “discussed how to avoid antagonizing the NFL by altering the script.” As emails discovered by hackers show, the executives also reportedly shifted the focus of the film away from a takedown of the league and how it covered up concussion data and instead marketed the movie as the tale of a whistle-blower.

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Smith plays the role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who diagnosed chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a number of former NFL players who had died premature deaths and linked it to their football careers. Not surprisingly, his work was condemned by the NFL and those doctors who work with and for the league. Basically, the league painted Omalu as a fraud.

But now Omalu’s work is seen as legitimate and important, and in the last several years, the NFL has pushed through new concussion guidelines and has emphasized player safety as never before.

But the NFL’s influence in how the concussion story is told—or whether it’s told at all—is still felt.

As the Times reports, Sony executives, director Peter Landesman, and Smith’s representation sent dozens of emails to discuss how to avoid the NFL’s wrath, including deleting or altering “unflattering moments.” Another email said that “most of the bite” had been taken out of the movie because of “legal reasons with the NFL…”

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Dwight Caines, the president of domestic marketing for Sony Pictures, wrote in an Aug. 6, 2014 email that the studio would work with an NFL consultant “to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.”

Landesman, though, told the Times that the emails showed that Sony was trying to make sure the NFL couldn’t charge the studio with taking creative license.

“We don’t want to give the NFL a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie,” Landesman told the paper. “…There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the NFL.”

The movie is set for a Christmas release, but the trailer was shown this week.

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While Sony doesn’t have a major relationship with the NFL, the league has used its influence in the past with partners who could be hurt if the NFL was unhappy with a product.

After the drama series, Playmakers, debuted on ESPN in 2003, the NFL pressured the network—which, unlike Sony, does have an imperative relationship with the league—to cancel the show because it didn’t like how the fictional NFL players were perceived. In 2013, as PBS and ESPN co-produced the documentary League of Denial that dealt with the NFL’s historic response to the brain injuries suffered by its employees, the league convinced ESPN to stop working with PBS’s Frontline.

In a statement released Monday in response to the Concussion trailer, the NFL said, “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.”

Screengrab via Sony Pictures Entertainment/YouTube

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*First Published: Sep 2, 2015, 3:41 pm CDT