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When top NFL Players Association executive George Atallah first screened Sony’s Concussion in November, he vowed to enlist as many of the union’s nearly 12,000 members as possible to see the upcoming drama..
“We’ve been telling the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu for the past five or six years as an organization,” the assistant executive director of external affairs tells The Hollywood Reporter in his first interview about the film. “This was something our union was definitely going to recommend.”
Though the film doesn’t open until Christmas Day, hundreds of active and former players already have watched the Will Smith starrer, which chronicles the story of Omalu, a forensic pathologist whose research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was met with fierce resistance by the NFL. New York Jets’ Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis is the highest-profile player to see the film, calling it “educational.” (Ironically, he saw it in New York after suffering a concussion that sidelined him for two weeks).
Atallah had strong words for Concussion’s naysayers, who have criticized everything from the pic being anti-football (“I disagree with that 100 percent”) to the accuracy of Dr. Omalu’s role in bringing this research to light to (“I think it’s unfair to pick this film apart as a documentary because it’s not.”) He spoke to THR about the player response, the union’s portrayal and what he hopes the film’s lasting legacy will be.
How many current and former players have you screened the movie for?
At least a few hundred. And family groups as well. The biggest turnout we had was in Atlanta earlier this month. There’s another huge turnout coming tonight in Houston.
What has been the reaction?
It’s been varied. A number of players believe that the film might attack football itself. Then there are players on the other side of the spectrum who understand that this is a story that they have not only lived through but is necessary to tell if we want to actually make the game safer in the future. But everybody I’ve spoken to who has seen it says it’s absolutely worth seeing. But look, if I’m being honest, there are some active players who say they don’t want to see the film because it hits too close to home. But most of the active players I’ve talked to absolutely want to see this film.
To those who say this movie is anti-football, what do you say?
I disagree with that 100 percent. I don’t think this movie is anti-football. I think this movie is quite the opposite and looks at how the NFL has gotten in its own way, which has hurt football. The only obstacle here is the NFL itself because of the way they managed this issue. It’s not the story about one person who is out to destroy the game. It’s about the story of one person who actually used medical research and science to make the necessary changes to make the players safer. That’s a big, big difference.
There’s been a suggestion that the movie has been toned down to mollify the NFL. From your perspective, do you see any evidence of that?
I do not. I think it’s unfair to pick this film apart as a documentary because it’s not. There are a number of things that I think, from my perspective, having been personally involved in our organization’s fight to have some of these things come to light, that maybe could have been fleshed out. For example, [former NFL safety] Dave Duerson’s role could have been softer than it was because Dave was a friend of mine. [Duerson committed suicide in 2011.] When you see a film, you have a tendency to criticize the lack of 100 percent accuracy as opposed to looking at the broader narrative of what the message is. The movie is mostly accurate actually, but we are focused more on the broader true story of Omalu’s inspirational and determined fight to reveal the truth about his research. It doesn’t make much sense for us as a union to stand behind the film if we didn’t think it has credibility and merit. Frankly, for Hollywood to take on this message is something that everyone in the NFL community should embrace. For an actor like Will Smith to take on a role like that is something that everyone in the NFL community should recognize as important. Sure, we had some quibbles with the specific details, but the broader narrative of the movie is really really important to not just the NFL community but anyone who cares about football in general.
Duerson’s family is not happy. Have they reached out to you personally?
No, not to me personally, but I think they have reached out to others in our office.
Internally, how have your colleagues responded?
When we showed the film to our staff — we have a number of staff who are former players who played with Dave Duerson and Junior Seau and Andre Waters, who are portrayed in the film — even they said they said they understood, for the broader message of the film, why certain liberties were taken for the dramatic element of moviemaking.
What do you think is the most powerful scene in the movie?
Near the very end, it’s Dr. Omula’s one moment of overcoming the league. The first door that opens up to Dr. Omula is the [NFL] Players Association meeting in Florida. That was his first official credible foray into the NFL community, was at our players’ meeting. Even talking about it now gives me goose bumps, because it’s a moment because we had to come to grips with this as an association where we finally stood up and said, “It’s important that our players know the truth about what’s going on.” It’s the turning point for Dr. Omalu from being called all of the horrible things he was being called and having to fight all of the things he had to fight. And it’s a triumphant moment. I have a personal connection to that meeting, having been there.
Has there been any dialogue between the Players Association and the NFL about the movie?
No, other than acknowledgment that it’s coming out. Nothing policy-wise.
Do you see this movie effecting change at all in the NFL?
The nice thing about the film is, as a change agent, I think it’s already had an effect. The story has already forced the NFL to be held accountable to improve health and safety standards in football. I want to see the film change football not just at the NFL level but at every other level of the game, from the NCAA down to youth. We shouldn’t criticize the film and hold it to the standards of a documentary. We should hold this film up high as a standard of the broader message of what one person can do with the support of an institution like ours to make change happen. With its broad appeal, I hope the film makes an impact on parents to look at football and how administrators at the NCAA and high-school level and down to the youth level can improve health and safety for those young athletes who don’t have the benefit of having a union. One of the ways that can happen is with the impact of a Hollywood film.
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