The Will Smith drama “Concussion” was already set to release amid a flurry of activity in the ongoing head trauma debate that hangs over the National Football League in the run-up to the 50th annual Super Bowl next year. A new report gathering attention today assures it will feel as timely as ever when it finally arrives, right in the middle of the football — and Oscar — season.
In March, 24-year-old San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland made headlines when he announced his retirement after just one season in the NFL. He cited concerns over the risk of developing longterm brain damage, despite being on the verge of making millions and becoming a star.
One month later, a federal judge gave final approval for a class-action lawsuit settlement between the league and more than 5,000 former players. The lawsuit accused the NFL of hiding the dangers of concussions.
All of this came on the heels of a number of high-profile stories, from the 2012 Jovan Belcher murder/suicide (the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker shot and killed his girlfriend before turning the gun on himself), to former San Diego Chargers star Junior Seau taking his own life the very same year. Seau’s death recalled the suicide of fellow former player Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest and left a note requesting that his brain be studied for signs of trauma.
Pathology reports on all three men, and countless others, showed they likely had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s a progressive degenerative disease of the brain with symptoms including depression and aggression.
Now comes a Frontline report that underscores the entire issue. A total of 87 out of 91 former players have tested positive for the disease, according to researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University. That’s 96 percent.
The NFL appears eager to maintain a dialogue on this. After writing about the new trailer for “Concussion” in August, Variety was contacted by the league’s PR department with a link to the NFL’s fourth annual Health and Safety Report. Released on Aug. 5, the report is “a robust resource on the steps the NFL continues to take to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, expanded medical resources, investing in protective equipment, a commitment to the wellness of retired players, and a focus on overall youth sports safety,” according to spokeswoman Joanna Hunter.
The report finds that, since 2012, concussions in regular season NFL games are down 35 percent. It cites “nearly 40 rules changes in the past decade to promote player safety,” and includes a message from pathologist Dr. John York noting a “deep and growing culture of safety within professional football.”
Last month, The New York Times — sourcing emails from the Sony hack — wrote that the studio altered the film to assuage the league. Sony and director Peter Landesman felt so compelled to respond that the director spoke at length to our sister publication Deadline, among others.
All the while, no one at the league has seen the film and Sony has only screened it for sports press.
Jeff Miller, NFL senior vice president of Health and Safety Policy, has said he would embrace a joint effort with Sony to raise awareness of the issue. No word from the studio on whether that’s a possibility, but the debate will no doubt continue to rage with the football season well underway and the film’s release mere months away. And when “Concussion” does arrive, it will be interesting to see whether it connects with awards voters for dramatically raising an issue that continues to swirl in TV and newspaper headlines.