Will Smith in talks to star in NFL concussion movie


Will Smith on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Dan Marino may be withdrawing from the latest lawsuit to hit the NFL over concussions, but the league isn’t going to be able to outrun its concussion problem if it’s up to Hollywood.

At least three movies are in the works that tackle the NFL’s concussion problem, including a project that’s slated to star Will Smith. Smith is in talks to star in an untitled film based on the 2009 GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas. If he signs on as expected, Smith will play Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic neuropathologist who first found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) while conducting an autopsy on Mike Webster, the former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Omalu is one of the experts interviewed in the “Frontline” documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”

After Omalu looked at slides of Webster’s brain and named his condition, Omalu thought the NFL would be grateful.

“I was excited,” he told “Frontline.” “I thought the football industry would be happy with our new discovery. I thought naively that discovery of new information, unraveling new information, redefining concepts, I thought the football industry would embrace it — again, about my business experience — utilize it, turn it into some type of utility, some type of utility function to enhance the game.”

Of course that’s not what happened. Omalu told “Frontline” the league tried to publicly discredit him through its doctors. When he submitted his findings to the journal “Neurosurgery” (a go-to for the NFL’s own doctors), it was reviewed by 18 people before it was finally published. Normally when papers are submitted, there’s a max of three reviewers, and that’s only if the first two disagree.

The “Frontline” documentary was based on reporting by ESPN reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. But ESPN abandoned its partnership with PBS, under pressure from the NFL, which fears concussion lawsuits such as the one Marino just withdrew from.

The fact that a star of Smith’s caliber is possibly headlining a movie about the very thing the league has been trying desperately to distract its fans from is huge. There’s nowhere left to hide. Plenty of people ignore “Frontline,” but Smith is one of the highest-grossing actors of all time, and the movie has strong backing from Ridley Scott and Giannina Facio.

Another production company is working on a movie based on “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” the book by Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada that resulted from their original reporting for ESPN. And Isaiah Washington will star in “Game Time Decision,” an independent film about a retired player suffering from the effects of CTE.

“I was shocked to learn my former Bengals teammate Chris Henry, who died at the young age of 26 from a truck accident, suffered from CTE,” Matthew A. Cherry, the writer and director of “Game Time Decision,” told Deadline Hollywood. “My goal is to truthfully present what life is like for a person that suffers from this disease and to further the conversation on how CTE impacts players and their family members.”

h/t Sporting News

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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