Until very recently, the NFL essentially ignored all evidence that concussions, an all too frequent occurrence in football, can lead to serious long-term health problems. Alan Schwarz, known for writing numerous articles exposing the seriousness of concussions in the NFL, reported the league's first public acknowledgement in 2009.
Since then, the NFL has instituted a number of protocols surrounding concussions and protecting injured players, made rule changes to lessen the number of hits to the head and donated money to brain injury research. Even so, former players have continued to come forward regarding the depression, anxiety and serious cognitive issues they're experiencing years after they've retired. In many cases it's for pure awareness, and in others it's a condemnation of both how they were treated and concerns regarding current player safety.
And now comes a major film that's the biggest nightmare for the NFL yet.
Starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, Concussion tells the true story of the real Pittsburgh forensic pathologist as he discovers chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players' brains and faces stiff resistance from the powerful NFL in bringing about awareness to the disease.
Omalu made the discovery in 2002 and although the film is clearly a dramatization of the events surrounding his work, it appears to shed an incredibly negative light on the NFL, presenting the league as a powerful bully unwilling to prioritize the safety of its players in the face of clear evidence suggesting football may never truly be a safe sport.
Needless to say, it's a PR nightmare for the NFL.
From San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retiring at age 24 over head injury concerns to former quarterback Brett Favre and President Barack Obama saying they wouldn't let their kids play football, the NFL is facing a very real crisis with respect to the future of the game.
If less and less kids play football, the talent pool will shrink as players get older and the NFL will see elite athletes turning to different, safer sports. For a business that hopes to generate $25 billion in revenue by 2027, that's obviously a trend it just can't let happen.
BuzzFeed reported on how Concussion could counter the NFL's attempts to squash the film last December, highlighting a quote in an email sent by Allan Mayer, head of strategic communications at 42West, a public relations firm based in New York. The email was surfaced from the infamous Sony hack.
"CONCUSSION is going to piss off the NFL," he wrote.
"We should not try to pretend otherwise," the quote continued. "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."
Given the leaked emails, many drew the conclusion that in order to move forward with the film, its creators would have to tiptoe around the NFL and possibly alter original plans so as not to antagonize the league. However, director Peter Landesman disputed that notion.
"We always intended to make an entertaining, hard-hitting film about Dr. Omalu's David-and-Goliath story, which played out like a Hollywood thriller," he told The Associated Press. "Anyone who sees the movie will know that it never once compromises the integrity and the power of the real story."
Obviously, the film has already been made and it's on track to be released Christmas Day. How the NFL handles itself as press continues to pick up the film and reviews start coming out will be super interesting, though, given the recent scandals it's been in the midst of relating to domestic violence.
There's no doubt the PR team is preparing quietly for the storm.