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Does NFL Want to Give Sony a Concussion?

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The fallout from the Sony Pictures e-mail hacks continues, and the latest revelation might not make the National Football League too happy.

Buzzfeed's Lindsey Adler found a memo among the enormous document dump discussing the company's strategy to combat any anticipated action by the NFL before the release of a feature film on brain disease in football. The upcoming drama, under the working title "Concussion," stars Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, the real-life neuropathologist credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy after conducting the autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster.

According to Buzzfeed, one of the e-mails was sent by Allan Mayer, head of the strategic communications division at 42West, a public-relations firm employed by Sony. In it, he warns the studio not to underestimate "a powerful adversary that may try to prevent the movie from being made." Mayer postulates that the NFL would take a two-pronged approach by casting doubt on the film's accuracy while engaging in a "pressure campaign" not unlike the one that caused ESPN to pull out of its partnership with PBS on the Frontline documentary, "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis."

As Adler notes, Sony won't be as easy to push around as ESPN, which has a longstanding business relationship with the NFL that includes the television rights to Monday Night Football. But there are some seeming conflicts of interest: After a one-year hiatus, the league once again offers its NFL Sunday Ticket streaming service through Playstation game consoles, despite its close partnership with Sony competitor Microsoft, and Madden NFL 15 is a perennial best-seller among video games. (Then again, as another leaked email reveals, it seems the NFL has already managed to hit Sony where it hurts: Jeopardy.)

Mayer outlines a path for Sony to deal with the NFL, emphasizing that it needn't be "purely (or even mainly) defensive." First, the film needs to be factually solid when it comes to its "science and history," something you'd hope the filmmakers would have ensured anyway. Then, he advocates playing up the "David-and-Goliath aspect" wherein the fans and their loyalty to teams and players are distinct from the interests of the league. Along those lines, he suggests that the problem depicted in the film isn't the game of football -- it's "the people who thought they were protecting the game by trying to suppress the truth about CTE."

This might be a good strategy when it comes to marketing the film. It gets to the heart of the dilemma many fans and former players feel about the sport that they love. It's smart to position the public's interests as fans of football as not necessarily contradictory to the interests of the players they root for. And it's certainly true that the NFL shoulders the majority of the blame when it comes to minimizing the risks of concussions and long-term brain damage that may result from playing football.

But it's also true that football is an inherently dangerous sport, and ignoring that fact in order to shift the focus onto the admittedly culpable league in the name of promoting a film simply serves to obscure the broader, more complex discussion surrounding player safety, personal responsibility and the choice to expose one's self to harm. This isn't an either-or conversation -- given that football is unsafe, the league is still on the hook for whitewashing just how unsafe it is. Players who have been properly educated on the dangers of football have the right to make an individual choice to put themselves in harm's way, but that assumes more faith in the NFL's health initiatives than I, personally, have.

And the discussion of safety in football goes far beyond the professional level. A recent Bloomberg Politics poll revealed that half of Americans don't want their kids playing football, but as Will Leitch points out, a good chunk of these people are high-income and college-educated. In other words, as Leitch put it, "Rich people might not want their own kids to play, but that doesn't mean they don't want someone else's kids to play."

The point is that any honest discussion about concussions, to which Sony's "Concussion" movie presumably aims to contribute, needs to begin with the admission that football is dangerous. The cognitive dissonance reflected in that Bloomberg poll stems from the ability to fool ourselves into thinking that going forward, technological advancements coupled with the NFL ceasing to be grossly negligent can prevent the catastrophic health consequences of the past. At the same time, the more immediate goal of ensuring that players are properly protected and compensated isn't served by deflecting attention away from their built-in occupational hazards. Again, it's not an either-or situation.

Plenty of writers have pondered the "death of football," given what we know about its effects. I'm not so naive that I think that's actually a possibility, given the game's enormous popularity, ever-expanding in the face of controversy. But by the same token, I'm not so naive that I would buy a movie studio's line that in the story of concussions, the game of football was an innocent victim to the NFL's Goliath.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net