When a slot suddenly opens up in the schedule of mega star Will Smith, it is pretty big news in Tinseltown. Now that the actor has exited Julius Onah’s Brilliance, his schedule window may soon be filled with the upcoming, untitled drama being produced by Ridley Scott – exploring the issue of brain trauma in American Football.
It all starts with Sony, who have the rights to a GQ article titled ‘Brain Game,’ written by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Passionate about the subject, Ridley Scott originally intended to direct the film, but will now stick to producing it, with Peter Landesman (Parkland) attached as writer and director. Scott has been developing the project along with his producing partner, Giannina Facio, and with Landesman having completed the script, cameras look set to roll before the end of the year.
Intended as a ‘whistleblower’ type of story, the project follows Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith), who is the forensic neuropathologist that discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The condition is experienced by professional sports players who incur repeated concussions during their career. In 2002, Omalu examined the brain tissue of the late Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster, along with that of 8 other players, and found in all of them damage similar to that in Alzheimers and dementia patients. It was estimated that the trauma to Webster’s brain was equivalent to 25,000 car crashes over a 25 year football career. Omalu went largely unheard until the same post-mortem diagnosis was made in the case of NFL player Chris Henry in 2009. The crux of the issue is the alleged complicity of the NFL in effectively exploiting the collisions that cause the injuries, for the purpose of increasing profit.
The subject of CTE and the NFL has become increasingly big news, since a class-action lawsuit was brought against the giant football organization by over 4,500 former football players, and was settled for $765 million last year. The suit was precipitated by the suicide of former player Dave Duerson in 2011, who shot himself in the chest and left a note asking that his brain be used to research the condition for the benefit of future players. In 2012, Junior Seau ended his life in the same way – without a note – and was found to have CTE on examination of his brain.
The effects of CTE are ultimately debilitating, with many sufferers experiencing dementia, extreme memory loss and the erosion of general mental faculties. The issue has been previously highlighted in the Frontline documentary The League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis and – as is so often the case – a number of rival concussion projects are now springing up. Writer, director and former football player Matthew A. Cherry is working on an independent project tackling this subject, and has Isaiah Washington attached to star. Meanwhile, producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald are developing a project based on the book ‘League Of Denial: The NFL, Concussions And The Battle For Truth,’ written by reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, which was the basis for the recent Frontline documentary.
With the issue having been ignored for years, such a range of competing film projects should surely guarantee that the CTE debate continues. With Will Smith set to take the lead for Peter Landesman and Ridley Scott, and a late-2014 shooting schedule to aim for, it seems as though this production may be the one that makes it to the touchline first.