Will Smith's NFL-themed drama "Concussion" is already causing controversy over three months before it's due to hit theaters.
The Oscar bait film features Smith as the real-life forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurological disease that can cause depression, dementia and other behavioral changes, in football players and put it on the NFL's radar in the early 2000s. Omalu's work gained national recognition following a string of suicides by former players, which were later blamed on brain trauma.
When the film's first trailer was released on Monday there was widespread speculation that "Concussion" would be an indictment of America's most popular and profitable sport, but leaked emails from Sony, the studio releasing the project, tell a different story. According to The New York Times, emails from the infamous hacking of the company last fall suggest that the film was watered down to avoid a showdown with the NFL.
"Will 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,” Dwight Caines, the president of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, reportedly wrote in an August 2014 email to top studio executives about the rollout of the project. “We’ll develop messaging with the help of [sic] NFL consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.”
And another unearthed email concedes “unflattering moments for the NFL” were excised from "Concussion," and that a Sony lawyer had taken “most of the bite” out of the film “for legal reasons with the NFL and that it was not a balance issue.”
Sony issued a strongly-worded statement to NBC refuting The New York Times report on Wednesday. "Today's New York Times article and headline, written by individuals who have not seen the film, contains many misleading inferences. As will become immediately clear to anyone actually seeing the movie, nothing with regard to this important story has been 'softened' to placate anyone,” a spokesperson for Sony Pictures said.
The NFL also released an official statement to NBC News on Wednesday in which they avoided specifically addressing the film but did reiterate their commitment to "the critical issue of player health and safety."
"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," their statement read. "By way of additional background, earlier this month we released our annual NFL Health and Safety Report at a press conference featuring the NFL's medical leadership. The report is a robust resource on the steps the NFL continues to take to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, expanded medical resources, investing in protective equipment, a commitment to the wellness of retired players, and a focus on overall youth sports safety."
The film's director and writer Peter Landesman defended the leaked emails' content in an interview with the Times, claiming they don't prove anything other than the studio's desire to avoid questions of accuracy or credibility. “There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the NFL,” he said.
"Concussion," which Landesman has described as a "David and Goliath" story" and is based on a 2009 GQ profile of Omalu, will be released nationwide in theaters on Christmas Day.