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Sony edited its new movie Concussion to avoid pissing off the NFL

Sony's new movie Concussion stars Will Smith as the doctor who first uncovered the brain disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in football players, setting off the league's concussion crisis.

The doctor, Bennet Omalu, was a whistleblower who crusaded for years to expose a truth that the NFL tried its best to cover up. But as Ken Belson of the New York Times reported Tuesday, Sony edited the film to make it less damaging to the NFL — and consciously avoided condemning football as a whole.

Emails released in the November 2014 Sony hacks show that studio executives altered the script to placate the league and tried reaching out to league representatives to discuss it. In one email, a Sony lawyer said that "most of the bite" has been taken out of the film "for legal reasons with the N.F.L. and that it was not a balance issue."

Other emails detail the executives' careful crafting of the film, due out Christmas Day, to make it less inflammatory. "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," wrote Dwight Caines, the president of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, to studio executives. "We’ll develop messaging with the help of N.F.L. consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest."

There's a pattern of NFL-driven media censorship

league of denial

ESPN canceled its involvement in the PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial due to pressure from the NFL. (PBS Frontline)

This isn't the first time a media company has altered or abandoned its coverage of sensitive issues to avoid pissing off the NFL.

In 2013, ESPN co-produced the PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial, which covered the research of Omalu and other doctors and the lives of many former players who'd suffered from CTE (which can lead to depression, dementia, and, in some cases, suicide). But weeks before it was set to air, ESPN opted out, removing its name and logo from the film, and canceled plans to air segments of it on its TV channel.

A New York Times investigation found that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league executives had pressured ESPN to quit the project. Its leverage: ESPN has a $1.9 billion contract with the NFL to broadcast Monday Night Football, the second-highest-rated program on cable.

Back in 2004, meanwhile, ESPN abruptly canceled its fictional show Playmakers, which portrayed the lives of players in an equally fictional football league, with lots of drug use, violence, and sex. Then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue reportedly pushed ESPN to kill that show as well.

Sony's neutering of Concussion, though, reaches a new level: It's self-censorship, done preemptively to avoid angering the NFL. The emails revealed the company never actually met with the NFL or showed the league the script. And Sony doesn't have the same sort of direct business ties with the NFL as ESPN does. Still, it edited the film entirely on its own.

The NFL tried to fight the science about concussions, too

All this is especially upsetting because the NFL also tried its best to cover up something much bigger: the threat of long-term head trauma to football players.

In 2002, Omalu examined the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster (who'd suffered from severe depression and dementia before dying from a heart attack at age 50) and found that CTE, which had long been known in boxers, could develop in football players too. Over the next few years, Omalu and other scientists found dozens of deceased former players who'd also unknowingly had CTE and found that it causes depression, dementia, and other symptoms.

But for years, the NFL tried its best to discredit this fact. The committee it established to examine the effects of concussions declared there were no long-­term health issues associated with the injuries, a finding sharply criticized by independent researchers.

Omalu initially expected the NFL to be alarmed at his findings, but league staff instead accused 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.

In 2009 — after Congress grilled Goodell during hearings — the league abruptly changed course, finally acknowledging the problem. It's since made some rule changes to reduce the number of players' concussions, put new protocols in place to make sure concussed players are properly diagnosed, and donated money for concussion and CTE research.

Still, the NFL is clearly still worried about its image and wants to keep the issue away from the news. Sony's self-censorship is an upsetting reminder of how much power the league has to shape coverage. As Sony executive Hannah Minghella asked in one of the emails, "[R]ather than portray the N.F.L. as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the N.F.L. who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth."

Update: In a statement made Wednesday, Sony maintained that Concussion hasn't been significantly changed, though it did not deny the authenticity of the emails:

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.