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Sony Pictures reportedly softened 'Concussion' out of fear of NFL

Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu in 'Concussion,' a film about one neuropathologist's fight against the NFL.
Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu in 'Concussion,' a film about one neuropathologist's fight against the NFL.
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On Monday, Sony released the first trailer for its sports drama, "Concussion," which stars Will Smith. The movie seemed poised to provide an uncompromising take on the NFL's battle to hide the debilitating brain injuries from which its athletes have suffered.

But now, as part of the continued fallout from the series of cyber attacks that leveled Sony last winter, it seems as if the struggling studio might have softened the impact of "Concussion" to maintain positive relations with the NFL. 

Ken Belson of the New York Times reports that dozens of emails between Sony executives, Smith's representatives, and the film's director, Peter Landesman, reveal that elements of the movie — from its script to its marketing — were changed to "avoid antagonizing the NFL."

When Belson joined us on The Frame today, we asked him about the NFL's controversial history with media companies, the ongoing issue of concussions in football, and whether or not he was able to see any of the changes that reportedly "took most of the bite" out of "Concussion."

Interview Highlights:

Before we talk about the politics of Sony's decision, let's talk about concussions and brain injuries in football. How big of a problem is it, and what's going on legally and medically on that front right now?

It's the biggest existential crisis that football in general, and the NFL specifically, have ever faced. You're talking about a revelation about brain injury that essentially can lead people, including parents of kids who might play, to conclude that it's potentially lethal to play football. That's a pretty big red flag.

Within the past 10 years, the NFL has had to grapple with that. They were aware of this problem even before then, but they put out a lot of research to discredit that notion. But in the last 10 years the NFL has had no choice but to confront this issue head-on. Sorry for the pun.

And they have been sued, as you alluded to. They're in the process of settling a massive class action suit to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. They accept no fault in that, but money talks, so it's a way of trying to make the problem go away. And a movie focused squarely on a doctor who discovered early-onset dementia in football players is not a heartwarming story for the NFL.

Peter Landesman, the writer and director of the film, said in your story: "There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the NFL." Does it look as if the movie was not watered down to satisfy concerns, real or imagined, that the NFL might have?

I can't speak to Peter's specific point, but there was a specific email that mentioned an Excel chart with lines from the script that were altered. I asked for examples for things that were altered. If there was nothing substantive altered, why not show them to me?

That didn't happen, so I can only take his word that the final script is still just as powerful as it may have been in earlier drafts, but we don't know that. I do know that there were conversations among executives at Sony wondering about how to position the movie so as not to stir up the hornet's nest.

This isn't the first time that the league has engaged with a media company about professional football. What are some of the other examples where there's been a debate or a clash between the NFL and a media company about content?

To be clear, the NFL never engaged with Sony here. [The film's] director did reach out to the head PR guy at the NFL about a year ago, and ultimately they never met so it never went anywhere. There are no emails to say that the NFL specifically said, Take this out of the script. This is a story of Sony trying to make the film as airtight as possible so that they can't be opened up to attack later on for playing loose with the facts.

But there have been other reported instances of the NFL pressuring ESPN as well as the Disney company, which owns ESPN, to curtail the filming of a show, as well as a documentary about concussions that ESPN and [PBS'] "Frontline" were involved with. The NFL wasn't terribly excited about that documentary, and as a result ESPN broke off its partnership with "Frontline." "Frontline" ended up showing the documentary, and a book written by two ESPN reporters was ultimately published, but the partnership between ESPN and "Frontline" ended at that point.

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