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NFL Faces Repeated Blows from Hollywood in Concussion-Centered Films

Hollywood is warming up to tackle the National Football League with several projects that focus on concussion-related brain injuries among players. Each of the works could shed new light on the most contentious issue plaguing both the sport and the league.

Given the nature of these projects and Hollywood’s vast platform, this wouldn’t be the first time the industry could bring change via entertainment ventures — like the spotlight Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s docu “Blackfish” put on Sea World, or how “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” lit a fire for mental health reform.

“I’m intrigued by football and brain injuries,” says producer Brian Grazer, noting that he touched on the subject in Imagine’s “Friday Night Lights” TV series. “Depending on the approach of these movies, they can penetrate the social consciousness and absolutely affect behavior.”

Sony Pictures, along with Scott Free Prods. and the Shuman Co., is developing a script with Peter Landesman based on Jeanne Marie Laskas’ 2009 GQ story “Game Brain,” which centers on neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a condition caused by repeated blows to the head. Will Smith is set to star as Omalu.

“The scientific community has been trying to tell this story for a long time,” says Laskas, a consultant on the project. “But obviously the NFL doesn’t want concussions to be a part of the narrative when we watch football.”

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Meanwhile, Parkes/MacDonald Prods. is developing a project based on the book “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” which also served as the basis of a 2013 documentary by PBS’ “Frontline.” The TV docu was originally co-produced by ESPN, which airs “Monday Night Football” and withdrew from the production amid allegations it had been pressured by the NFL.

And Matthew Cherry, a former NFL wide receiver-cum-filmmaker, is in the final stages of securing financing for “Game Time Decision,” a script he wrote that follows the relationship between an estranged father suffering from CTE and his son, a star college quarterback.

“For a long time, the NFL was saying ‘There isn’t an issue here,’” Cherry says. “Now players and their families know the dangers, and it’s on them to proceed.” In August 2013, the NFL reached a $765 million settlement for concussion-related brain injuries of retired players, who, at that time numbered roughly 18,000.

Brian Rolapp, exec VP of NFL Media, says that none of the producers of these projects-in-the-works has approached him either about licensing rights or permission to use team names or logos. “All I would hope is that anyone who is making those films or reporting on the issue would be responsible enough to base it all on the facts,” he says.

On the smallscreen, Peter Berg (who directed the 2004 movie “Friday Night Lights” and worked as a writer-director-executive producer on the “Friday Night Lights” TV show) is exploring the subject in “Culture Shock,” the Nov. 11 debut installment of his sports-themed documentary limited series “State of Play” on HBO.

Adds Laskas: “With all of this talk of the NFL and concussions, it’s going to be loud now.”

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