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Sony changed Concussion to avoid legal problems with the NFL

Emails suggest that executives were concerned with angering America's most powerful sports league

Executives at Sony Pictures altered parts of the forthcoming film Concussion in order to avoid legal problems with the NFL, The New York Times reports, based on emails revealed by hackers late last year. The film, directed by Peter Landesman, stars Will Smith as a doctor whose research on the long-term effects of repeated brain trauma sparked an ongoing controversy over the safety of professional football. A trailer for the movie, released this week, pits Smith's character in direct opposition with the NFL, but internal emails suggest that Sony, Landesman, and Smith's representatives aimed to soften its script and marketing.

Some "unflattering moments for the NFL" were deleted or altered, according to an email sent last August, and one of Sony's top lawyers took "most of the bite" out of the movie "for legal reasons with the NFL." Other emails detail discussions of how to market the film; press materials should mention Smith's personal affinity for football, executives suggested. Others were concerned with vilifying the entire organization, rather than a few individuals. "We'll develop messaging with the help of a NFL consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet's nest," Dwight Caines, Sony Pictures' director of domestic marketing, said in an email to executives in August 2014. A Sony spokeswoman tells the Times that the consultant was hired to work with the NFL, and was not an NFL employee.

"There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling."

In the film, Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigeria-born forensic pathologist who diagnosed a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in NFL players. His work raised widespread concern over the safety of America's most popular sport, forcing the NFL to implement new ways of treating and studying concussions. The league also settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit brought by former players who accused the NFL of a cover-up.

The league has pressured other media organizations over coverage of its concussion crisis in the past. In 2013, it forced ESPN to abandon its involvement with a Frontline documentary on the league's response to the crisis. (Frontline later aired the film on its own.) Unlike other Hollywood studios, Sony Pictures has no major business ties to the NFL, the Times reports.

In an interview with the Times, Landesman confirmed that Sony's lawyers cut some parts of the film, though he said the changes were made in the name of accuracy, denying that the studio acted under pressure from the NFL. "We don’t want to give the NFL a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie," Landesman said. He added: "There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the NFL."

Update 2:28 PM ET: A Sony Pictures spokesperson has issued the following statement regarding the New York Times report: "Today's New York Times article and headline, written by individuals who have not seen the film, contains many misleading inferences. As will become immediately clear to anyone actually seeing the movie, nothing with regard to this important story has been 'softened' to placate anyone."