Hollywood Won’t Protect Its Own Football Heroes

By  · Published on September 7th, 2015

Why football movies often exploit those audiences most at risk.

Last Monday, Sony Pictures released the first theatrical trailer for Concussion, the studio’s prestige release highlighting the long-term health risks of concussions on professional football players. In the film, Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor credited with discovering a disease caused by sports concussions that can lead to dementia, violent behavior, and depression. The trailer promised a timely look at an ongoing issue for all levels of professional football; the past few years have seen a number of lawsuits against the National Football League suggesting that the NFL had hidden the damaging effects of concussions on players’ long term health. Sadly, several high-profile former NFL players have also been diagnosed with the disease postmortem after taking their own lives.

With Concussion sure to stir up discussion around award season, hopes were high that the film would be part of a growing debate regarding the health concerns for professional athletes. Those hopes lasted almost a total of twenty-four hours before the New York Times reported that Sony Pictures had given the NFL an opportunity to help “develop messaging” for Concussion, thereby ensuring that the film will not upset the status quo for the league.

Since this story broke, there has been a great deal of back-and-forth over what may have been cut from Concussion and how these edits might affect the final product. For some, it’s easy to shrug the entire affair off as the first in a long line of award season historical inaccuracies – leading to the inevitable “What Concussion Got Wrong About The NFL” articles. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that concussions are also a specific risk to high school and college students, an audience that Hollywood has been catering to ever since it began making football movies.

While Hollywood has occasionally produced films about professional football teams – typically fictitious ones, as evidenced by Any Given Sunday and The Replacements – many of the best football movies take place at the high school or collegiate levels. Friday Night Lights and We Are Marshall serve as perfect examples of the role that football plays in teaching discipline and teamwork to young men. Coaches serve as father figures; college recruiters present a way out of poverty and small-town America; communities rally around their team. In a Fandango list of the thirty greatest football films of all time, eighteen took place at the collegiate level or lower. Similarly, in a Hollywood Reporter list of the twenty-five greatest football films, a total of thirteen took place in college or high school. If we exclude The Longest Yard from the list (for obvious reasons), then the only football films to gross over $100 million at the box office were each set at a college program. High school and college football dominate the film market.

And this means that Hollywood – like most university programs – is exploiting the very audience most underrepresented in the debate surrounding concussions. Even compared to the highest levels of the game, student athletes who choose to play football are at a unique risk for concussions. Recent studies have shown that students on an athletic scholarship may spend as many as forty hours a week on the field outside of actual games and almost 58% of all concussions take place during practice. It is part of the common narrative for football films to show athletes willing to sacrifice their body for the big game – to leap into the air at the goal line if it means scoring the game-winning touchdown – but for many student athletes, concussions are a major health risk long before the big game even arrives. And this is if all concussions are being accurately identified and the necessary precautions taken for injured players; according to one study by Harvard University, there may be as many as six undiagnosed concussion at the collegiate level for every one reported.

While professionals may be able to make informed decisions regarding their own long-term health effects while playing football, it is nearly impossible to ask an 18-year-old to have the same degree of foresight. Over one million students play high school football in America each year; of that number, only 6.5% will advance to play football at a NCAA college program, with only 1.6% of those college students continuing onto the NFL. And even if you are one of the lucky 6.5% who continue to play in college – or better, are offered a scholarship to do so – you may still find yourself almost entirely dependent on your college program to make ends meet. A 2013 report by the National College Players Association showed that 86% of all college athletes live below the poverty line. Imagine telling a college student – who has already overcome tremendous odds to play at his current level, and who is only scrapping by with his athletic scholarship – that he needs to walk away from the game because he may end up with brain damage in forty years? It’s not an easy decision to make.

And this is why the NFL’s censorship of Concussion matters. Until now, the most sobering look at concussions in football might be in Not Another Teen Movie, where the scoreboard keeps track of the number of concussions offensive lineman Reggie Ray has left before he falls over dead. It’s the kind of bit that couldn’t possibly make its way into a comedy in 2015, but one that might more accurately capture the long-term risks of head injuries than Varsity Blues, the film that Teen Movie is spoofing. Sadly, there may be no easy answer to football’s concussion problem. The NFL remains one of the country’s most physically demanding employers, and professional athletes will need to decide their own tolerance for risk when it comes to their own bodies. But after years of Hollywood celebrating the battered forms of underage athletes on the screen, Sony now has a chance to correct its own course and spread awareness of the risks that teenagers are taking with their long-term health. Here’s hoping that some of those lessons in integrity from Hollywood football films rub off on those in charge.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)