Sony emails show tiptoeing around NFL over Concussion film

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Sony wasn’t afraid to stand up to Kim Jong-un. Sony chose not to pick a fight with the NFL.

Sort of.

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.

54 responses to “Sony emails show tiptoeing around NFL over Concussion film

  1. Read these two paragraphs from an article in Vox about the new movie “Concussion” coming out in December (or go to the NYT to read about the Sony execs quivering in fear while producing the movie because they didn’t want to anger the NFL) and tell me the NFL isn’t a corrupt, immoral, possibly evil organization. It pains me to say that as a long-time NFL fan and someone who has experienced so much joy through the sport of football.

    “The league established a committee to examine the long­-term effects of concussions on players’ health, but it released findings that were deeply inconsistent with those of other neurologists. Among other things, the committee called concussions “minor injuries,” told players there was no problem with a concussed player returning to a game, and declared there were no long-­term health issues associated with the injuries. Independent researchers sharply criticized these statements.

    Omalu expected the NFL to be alarmed at his findings, but as the Concussion trailer depicts, league staff instead tried to discredit him, accusing him of fraud. “They went to the press. They insinuated I was not practicing medicine; I was practicing voodoo,” Omalu later told Frontline. He was barred from league meetings on football and the brain, along with other doctors who later worked on CTE.”

    They talk about integrity like it’s the Holy Grail and demonize one of their best spokesmen and players of all time to distract us all from the truth. The tactics used against Omalu are eerily similar to those used against Brady: Find some experts to publish a report that supports your position, use the media to discredit real accomplishments and tarnish the reputation of someone who doesn’t fall in line. You think they would’ve updated their playbook since 2002, but I guess not.

  2. Is this where all the politically conservative, anti-regulation fans say, grown men should have known all the risks of slamming into each other? Completely ignoring the fact that the issue is, whether the NFL concealed deleterious information they had learned and also swept aside possible means to alleviate damage, because they wanted to save money.

    Now watch all the Goodell-hating fans side with the NFL and against the players. It never fails.

  3. One way or the other, this film will be the primary source of popular opinion on the topic.
    Far too many people have made their way through the public disgrace ironically called education in this country. This isn’t a left handed call for throwing money at education, the government usually gets exactly the desired result they pay for.

  4. Ted Wells is already manufacturing evidence to support the league’s stance that “head-blows in fact raise players’ intelligence levels. To support Wells, the league has once again retained Exponent…the same company that determined second hand smoke is as healthy and cold temperatures do not affect PSI

  5. This is nothing more than Sony promoting this film and getting people to talk about it.

    I’m not sure how riveting a movie could be about a doctor to pokes brains all day. Some things are made for the big screen, innovative doctors aren’t one of them.

  6. What a bunch of gutless corporate tools they are at Sony. Either do something right or don’t do anything at all.

  7. Roger Goodell has probably already advised the networks and house organ ESPN not to do promotional work or show commercials for the movie. This is an important movie and opens during the holidays. The NFL should be afraid of this one and the truth surrounding it. They have already tried to discredit this Nigerian doctor and CTE. That’s the way the NFL does business.

  8. I hope the movie brings up the issue of why the NFL is refusing to use a piece of equipment that helped NFL players overcome concussion issues that threatened these players careers.

    Why doesn’t the NFL allow their players to use the Pro Cap?

    …they used to allow players to use it..and it worked..the Pro Cap eliminated concussion issues for those players who did use it.

    But today and for far too long, the NFL no longer allows players to wear the Pro Cap…a piece of equipment that did virtually eliminate the threat of concussions for those who did use it.

    I hope the film as well as the sports media, tries to find the answer to that question…why the NFL refuses to allow the use of a Pro Cap?

  9. Florio, thanks for this post.

    Yesterday, I suggested PFT followers read the story in yesterday’s NYT: “Makers of Sony’s ‘Concussion’ Film Tried to Prevent Angering N.F.L., Emails Show” and then reconsider Bob McNair’s comment that:

    1. “In effect, we don’t think most of these concussions referenced even occurred in the NFL, but we’re not going to complain about it.”

    2. The NFL is more credible than Brady.

    These guys are out attacking the veracity of one of the greatest players in NFL history, a guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps as a compensatory 6th round pick (effectively a 7th rounder) who has been a model citizen.

    Please consider the source of the attacks on Brady. It is the same guys who deny concussions result from NFL play.

  10. This happens with all films that have a non fictional narrative.

    Lawyers get involved and water everything down so nobody gets hurt. Then it is fed to the masses.

    Way too many lawyers on the planet.

  11. NFL on concussions: “Nothing to see here folks…move along”

    NFL on deflategate: “This is an atrocity…oh the humanity!”

  12. Im waiting for the day a rogue modern day NFL player sits down with a legit documentarian and really spills the beans on the league’s multitude of dirty secrets.

  13. “rayslover727 says:
    Sep 2, 2015 9:09 AM
    In other words, lawyers ruin everything.”

    I appreciate your sentiments but blaming lawyers is the type of misdirection NFL owners depend on to cover their actions. The people who are responsible for the cover up are the NFL owners. Yes, players and coaches try to hide these injuries for their own reasons but the owners are the ones behind the big lie. Just Google Bob McNair’s comments on the subject.

  14. This movie is going up against Star Wars and Hateful 8 and whatever animated holiday movie comes out, this movie is going to get lost. They would be better to hold off until around the Super bowl when very little is released of any good quality in the theaters and it can gain the headlines with all the focus on the Super Bowl/football talk.

  15. Florio is simply the best journalist now covering the NFL. Too many of the rest are afraid of risking their access. He’s blown apart the farce that is Deflategate, and is not aiming at the league’s real weak underbelly: the growing concern over head injuries at all levels of football.

  16. Everyone here bashing the NFL at every chance it gets. Then you whine when they throw flags for roughing the passer. Hypocrisy abounds

    This league that you bash incessantly produces the product that YOU CONSUME and obsess over year after year.

    This what happens when a bunch of fans since the Tuck Rule become the national voice for the league.

    (15 yard flag for going near the “beautiful” QB)

    Thanks for the whining, the headaches, the arrogance, for the soft rulebook, and thanks in advance for the forthcoming strike.

  17. If you don’t like it, don’t buy tickets. Don’t support a team. Don’t let your kid play ball. It’s pretty simple

    P.S. I’m a huge supporter of concussion research, especially after the recent tragedy of Junior Seau, RIP. What I’m tired of is the whining about the league, the hypocritical complaining… many of you have clearly never played the game.

    Football is war, not golf

  18. cromags says:
    Sep 2, 2015 8:36 AM
    The NFL is basically run like a big tobacco company now.

    26 0
    And Ted Wells fits perfectly with this approach and the collection of less than upstanding people running the NFL these days. His next big pay day is on the horizon. He has worked for the people who try to tell you second hand smoke doesn’t hurt you and the folks who say asbestos doesn’t hurt you and even for Johnson and Johnson. Yeah , the one headed by the owner of the JETS. And the final insult is that they try to pass him (and themselves) off as impartial.

  19. Has NFL emails ever been hacked? It would be interesting to see the level of corruption that goes on from within, especially regarding this issue.


    As much as I hate wiki leaks, I couldn’t agree more about the NFL emails being hacked. Would love to see what all these corrupt liars tuck and hide behind the alleged shield of integrity.

  20. I love professional football at its highest level. However, I’m really starting to hate the NFL. They are ruining my favorite sport and favorite overall pastime.

    They remind me of that friend that is funny and a bit of a clown. But that friend also doesn’t know when to quit and takes things too far and ends up annoying everybody.

    With this whole air pressure and concussion situation, they’re being completely exposed as nothing but scandalous liars who do anything to preserve the public image. Now it seems to be backfiring as Mark Cuban predicted.

    Great way for them to lead into the 50th anniversary of the NFL. Every time I see the color gold when it relates to the NFL this upcoming season, I will relate it to nothing but lies and scandal.

  21. helmetsail, I read posts like yours that allude to soft fans and players, whining, the headaches, the arrogance, for the soft rulebook, and the upcoming strike as ruing the NFL and I shake my head.

    Virtually nothing you say is reality based.

    Feel free to call Brady a “beautiful quaterback” but he has played 15 years in the NFL and your inference that he is “soft” makes me doubt your pretense that you played “the game”.

    Concussions are not headaches, they are brain injuries.

    The “soft rulebook” didn’t result from fans or players, rather it came from the owners and coaches that can’t compete on the field.

    The last work stoppage was a lockout by the owners of the players, not a strike.

    The replacement refs was do to the owners being belligerent, not the players, fans, or even the refs.

    Thanks for posting because posts like yours make responding with the truth even easier.

  22. The NFL’s handling of concussions during the Tagliabue era when Goodell was already the successor-in-waiting was deplorable. Among the low points: They sponsored a medical journal so they could publish their doctors “concussions-don’t-happen-in-football” articles. They also tried to discredit legitimate doctors at the forefront of concussion research including calling a bunch into a meeting with NFL administrators that turned into an inquisition with the NFL doctors (none of whom actually worked in concussion research) accusing the experts of being quacks.

  23. Surely we can get some Russian and Chinese spies to hack into the NFL emails. I agree, it would be something to see.

    As for this film, now that the lawyers have dumbed down the script, I’m not going to waste my money going to see it.

  24. Sony wasn’t afraid to stand up to Kim Jong-un.


    If my memory is working correctly. Sony was scared as hell at the time all that happened. For a while they caved to North Koreas demand of not showing the movie. After the public and many other true Americans told Sony to man up and stop being scared of that maniac did they finally release the film to the public.

  25. Absolutely pathetic by the NFL.

    I go to the theater maybe once every 4 years or so but will certainly be buying a ticket to this just for the box office effect on the NFL.

    Shameful shameful league

  26. Can somebody explain how the NFL, a $10-billion-a-year US corporation, has any sway at all over Sony, a $95-billion-a-year international corporation? Doesn’t make any sense at all.

  27. Should we really be publicizing hack emails and documents regardless of the content? I think the people who hacked Sony are getting what they wanted by creating chaos that surrounds it and are succeeding in their goals of creating conflict.

  28. On average over the last four years, each NFL team got about two RTP calls in its favor. That’s not much. So if you’re an NFL QB and think you’re not getting enough calls, well, booo hooo hooo, get in line. Nobody is getting a lot of calls.

    But surely, the Patriots or Colts must get a lot more calls in their favor than other teams, right? Not exactly. Here are all 32 teams ranked by number of RTP penalties called in the last four years.

    Rank Teams RTP calls
    1 BUF 17
    2 OAK 14
    T3 ATL, CAR, CHI, MIN, NE 12
    T8 DET, SF 11
    T10 NO, STL, TB 10
    T13 ARI, DEN, GB, JAC 9
    T17 CIN, NYJ, WAS 8
    T20 CLE, IND 7
    T22 HOU, KC, SD, SEA 6
    T26 MIA, NYG, PIT, TEN 5
    30 DAL 4
    T31 BAL, PHI 3

    The Patriots appear to have a fairly high count, but only eight of those calls were for Brady, two were for Cassel, two for Hoyer

  29. 2015 outlaw pats revenge dream scenario:

    16-0 regular season.
    brady owns the steelers yet again. close game against jags. win convincingly over both mannings. two shutouts each of the jets and dolphins. destroy bills for being posers. cut the eagles and cowgirls down to size. destroy the texans in their crib(sorry vince). close games against the titans and redskins(who got an upgrade at QB this week).

    1st round bye
    (peyton goes 1-&-done yet again, further settling GOAT, losing to the texans, getting their hopes up)

    obliterate the texans in the divisional round(again, sorry vince)
    torch the colts in the AFCCG(or ravens would be almost as satisfying) again
    win SB L, against the seahawks(again) or packers(sorry packers, a team you have to respect)

    now as far as the 2016 season goes…THREEPEAT!

  30. macbull says:
    Sep 2, 2015 8:57 AM
    I hope the movie brings up the issue of why the NFL is refusing to use a piece of equipment that helped NFL players overcome concussion issues that threatened these players careers.

    Why doesn’t the NFL allow their players to use the Pro Cap?

    …they used to allow players to use it..and it worked..the Pro Cap eliminated concussion issues for those players who did use it.

    But today and for far too long, the NFL no longer allows players to wear the Pro Cap…a piece of equipment that did virtually eliminate the threat of concussions for those who did use it.

    I hope the film as well as the sports media, tries to find the answer to that question…why the NFL refuses to allow the use of a Pro Cap?
    Do you really not know why? It is because Pro Cap is not an “officially licensed” sponsor of the NFL. Safety be damned, it’s all about the Benjamins with the Collective.

  31. So, like Pash editing the supposedly independent Wells report the league has gotten input into a supposedly independent movie.

    If only the NKs would hack the NFL servers and league executive’s phones.

  32. so this is consequences of Gooddell and Pash using all of their credibility chips on the Brady “scandal” …. their word and ability to control the narrative in the future is meaningless

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