Football, a sport generally associated with cinematic glory – cheering crowds, hoisting the quarterback up in victory, that thing where people dump gatorade on their coaches when they win – is about to get a somber wake up call.
League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, written by brothers and ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, is an in-depth report of football-related head injuries and the NFL’s inability to protect its players from those concussions. Now the book is getting a movie and television development deal after serving as the basis for the critically acclaimed PBS Frontline documentary The League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, which shined a bright light on the issue – to the point where ESPN withdrew from their investigatory partnership with PBS before the documentary aired. Allegedly, according to Deadline, the network succumbed to pressure from the NFL, to which it pays upward of $1b each year for Monday Night Football rights.
The development deal comes less than four months after the NFL settled for $765m with over 4,500 former players to cover concussion-related costs, exams and medical research, which wasn’t due to the PBS documentary, but great timing, guys. The Fainaru brothers’ book spends some time focusing on Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, whose brain was examined after his death and found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, what doctors say is the equivalent of being in 25,000 car crashes – the result of playing high school and college ball along with 17 years in the NFL.
Webster, who died of a heart attack at age 50, struggled after retiring from football. Years of mood swings, rage and odd behavior plagued him and essentially ruined his life until it ended at an early age. His story is a compelling one, and as it makes up a great deal of the book, could be the focus of the adaptation. At this point, it’s unclear whether or not this will be a feature film or a television series – or both. Along with Webster, there are definitely at least 4500 other players’ stories to pull from for material, including the tragic suicides of several former pros thought to be linked back to problems with concussions.
Assumingly based on the success and alarming findings of the PBS documentary, League of Denial isn’t the only football concussion project in the works right now. Ridley Scott is in the middle of developing a morality story in the same vein as Michael Mann’s The Insider, applied to football’s devastating affect on it’s greatest heroes. Isaiah Washington has signed on to Matthew A. Cherry’s Game Time Decision, a drama in which a retired football pro suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (the same degenerative brain disease that fell Webster) attempts to reach out to his estranged footbal-playing son to warn him about getting back in the game again right after suffering a concussion.
Perhaps with the Fainaru brothers’ reporting, League of Denial and the whole slew of films based on football concussions will prove to audiences (and the NFL) that the sport isn’t just fun and games.