Sony wasn’t afraid to stand up to Kim Jong-un. Sony chose not to pick a fight with the NFL.
The studio whose 2014 holiday-season project depicting assassination of the North Korean leader sparked a hack into Sony’s servers followed by an email mega-dump has walked on eggshells (sort of) regarding a 2015 holiday-season look into the NFL’s past culture of denying the long-term impact of mild, repetitive head trauma. The evidence, of course, comes from the hack that sparked the email mega-dump.
Via Ken Belson of the New York Times, emails exchanged by Sony executives in 2014 reveal concerns on the part of lead actor Will Smith regarding the potential for unduly angering the NFL, along with possible legal and overall credibility concerns regarding the specific accusations made as to the league’s handling of concussions.
“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,” a top Sony exec wrote in August 2014. “We’ll develop messaging with the help of [NFL] consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.”
Belson shares pieces of a separate emails in which someone wrote that “unflattering moments for the [NFL]” were deleted or changed, and that a Sony lawyer supposedly took “most of the bite” out of the film “for legal reasons with the [NFL].” This suggests a concern that the telling of a “true” story could lead to a potential defamation lawsuit, if the effort to dramatize actual events included blatantly non-actual assertions regarding the way the NFL handled the situation.
Peter Landesman, the director of Concussion, told Belson that the email exchange doesn’t reflect “bowing” to the NFL but an effort to tell the story accurately in order to prevent claims by the league that the line was crossed from fact into fiction. He said that changes made by Sony lawyers make the story “better and richer and fairer.”
“We’re just being smart because any large corporation will design a response to something it considers to be a threat to its existence,” Landesman told Belson, a quote that possibly says too much about the potential agenda of the film. “We don’t want to give the [NFL] a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie.”
The concerns don’t go simply to credibility but to potential liability. If, for example, the movie had included an express or implied suggestion that Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encelepathy, had received any sort of express or implied threat to his own health from someone connected to the league when no such thing ever happened, that could expose Sony litigation.
“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,” Landesman said. “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. . . . There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the [NFL].”
Landesman’s insistence that the film was never compromised doesn’t fully mesh with his own efforts to involve the NFL in the process, and in turn to potentially compromise it. Via Belson, Landesman attempted to set up a meeting with Commissioner Roger Goodell regarding the film. Sony executives slammed the door on the planned meeting after learning that Landesman had independently reached out to the league.
The NFL has to date slammed the door on commenting about Concussion, with the exception of a general statement issued to Belson when asked for comment: “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.”
If that’s the case, the NFL should welcome efforts to study its past failures to fully acknowledge the long-term risks of head trauma. Of course, it’s one thing to study its past failures via an internal memo marked “confidential.” It’s quite another to have that study displayed via celluloid to the people on whom the NFL relies to buy tickets to game and to watch them on TV.