Is the NFL Like the Tobacco Industry?

That's the implication of a new movie, “Concussion,” out in December, about brain illness caused by repeated hits to the head.

Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League (NFL), left, arrives at federal court in New York, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 31, 2015.

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

On Monday morning, Sony Pictures released the trailer for its big December Oscar movie, Concussion, starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist who discovers chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of football players who have committed suicide, linking the deadly disease with the United States’ most popular sport. (Omalu featured prominently in Frontline’s scathing documentary about head trauma in football two years ago, League of Denial.)

What’s perhaps most fascinating is where Sony released the trailer. It was given exclusively to Peter King, the longtime Sports Illustrated reporter considered the dean of the professional football writers establishment. King, a jovial fellow who appears on NBC’s Sunday Night Football—the signature NFL showcase, generally the highest-rated program on television every week of the season—is the author of Monday Morning Quarterback, a must-read column that he has written for nearly two decades. King is so tapped into the NFL establishment that he is often criticized—sometimes fairly, sometimes not —for being an NFL mouthpiece, for taking the NFL side on any contentious issue, for generally being the public face of a football press corps generally considered compliant and beholden to the league it covers. This infamous picture didn’t help.

For King to be the person to whom Sony handed the trailer is a bit of surprise, because the trailer essentially makes the NFL out to be, in the grand tradition of political thrillers, the evil corporation trying to get away with murder. It plays almost beat-for-beat like the trailer for Michael Mann’s The Insider, about a 60 Minutes producer played by Al Pacino attempting to force cigarette manufacturers to stop lying about the lethality of their product. It is not the best sign in the world for the NFL that their brand has reached the point that they are now the cigarette manufacturers. Particularly just 10 days before the season begins.

King, a man always aware (sometimes too aware) of his detractors online, seemed to understand the oddity of his site being the first place to show a trailer for a movie that seems set out to destroy the NFL.

Monday was the first time most Americans had heard about the movie, but the NFL has been fully aware for more than a year now. Back in December, BuzzFeed’s Lindsey Adler, after weeding through documents leaked from the Sony hack, found Sony Pictures already preparing for an NFL attack on its film. One of Smith’s publicists emailed the Sony Pictures crew saying, “CONCUSSION is going to piss off the NFL. We should not try to pretend otherwise. Moreover, there is no concession we could make short of agreeing to cancel the project entirely that could possibly satisfy them. Our strategy should thus be based on the assumption that we are going to be facing a powerful adversary that may try to prevent the movie from being made—and, failing that, to ensure that as few people as possible see it or take it seriously.” He also argued that the NFL would attempt to use its partnerships with ESPN and Nike to fight the film. Considering what happened with the original Frontline documentary—the film was originally co-produced by ESPN before commissioner Roger Goodell reportedly pushed the network to back out of its deal with PBS—this seems possible. But then again, the controversy caused by ESPN backing out probably gave the film more publicity than it would have had otherwise. And that film didn’t have Will Smith. 

More likely, the NFL will just ignore it, or attempt to find other distractions. Remember, concussions, domestic violence, and player discipline were all anyone could talk about before the last NFL season, and then the games started, and by midseason, no one was talking about Ray Rice anymore. This year, the distraction is DeflateGate, a story that had already knocked the Concussion trailer off the radar by lunchtime. I’ve argued before that the NFL will remain immune from bad publicity as long as people keep watching its games in record numbers. And until sports fans reject the game itself, no Will Smith movie about the evils of the league will be able to touch it either. That’s probably why Sony decided to send the trailer to King and the NFL media establishment in the first place. If you can’t win over the diehards, you won’t have a chance. NFL fans went to King’s column on Monday morning, like they do every Monday morning, and were confronted with something they usually try to ignore. It is becoming increasingly difficult to do so, and will become harder still in December, when Concussion is in the nation's multiplexes.

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