Will Smith at a screening of ‘Concussion’ (Getty Images)
Though he grew up a major Philadelphia Eagles fan and has participated in several Super Bowl festivities, Will Smith acknowledges that he has tried to avoid watching football since making Concussion, his new film about the tragic link between the violent sport and life-threatening brain injuries.
“I haven’t seen a whole game,” he told Yahoo Movies this week. “I walk through the airport and I’ll see something, or I’ll see a play on the news. It’s really stressful now. It definitely created a conflict for me. It’s still beautiful, it’s still America’s favorite game. That doesn’t change at all. It just has another side, that once you see and once you know and once you understand, you can’t not see.”
It’s a big admission from Smith, who has been careful to avoid completely smearing the National Football League during his promotion of director Peter Landesman’s film, which hits theaters on Christmas. With Concussion, the 47-year-old megastar has already received a Golden Globe nomination and his best reviews in years, with praise heaped upon his nuanced work as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born doctor who discovered CTE and helped publicize the degenerative brain condition and its prevalence among former NFL players. The film, based on a 2009 GQ story, traces Omalu’s journey from brilliant-but-anonymous autopsy expert to a potentially multibillion-dollar thorn in the side of the nation’s biggest sports institution and cultural center of gravity.
Smith, both in this interview and elsewhere, emphasizes his admiration for the incredible athleticism of football players and the beauty contained in the game, an appreciation that has not and will not waver. And as he and distributor Sony Pictures have promoted Concussion, they have focused on rounding up support from current NFL players (and are offering free tickets to all of them); Smith has attended several events put on for some of the game’s biggest stars, who have shared their feelings with him about the future they might face when their head-smashing gladiator days are over.
“We had a special screening for the players union, and a player said, ‘You have to understand, this movie is like a horror film for us,’” Smith recalls. “I never looked at it in that way, because CTE takes years to onset. But he said it was like watching a horror film. The thing that’s amazing is that players, at least the players that I’ve been in contact with, didn’t feel fully informed, and that the film was helpful in that way. It helped to inform them.”
Watch the trailer for ‘Concussion’ below:
Much of Concussion looks at the NFL’s attempt to stonewall and discredit Omalu and his colleagues, including doctors played by Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin. The league held firm even as the number of former brain-damaged players piled up (a recent study found 96 percent of late players’ brains tested by experts showed signs of the disease); even when it agreed to a massive $765 million payout to former players who alleged that the league covered up its knowledge of CTE for years, the NFL made sure that it would not have to disclose internal files related to what it knew about CTE. The league’s efforts to intimidate Omalu are detailed in the movie — which alleges that the NFL used the FBI to do its bidding — but Smith says that he does not believe the league was criminal in its negligence. Or, so he hopes, anyway.
“The director, Peter Landesman and I, had this discussion over and over again, essentially about the nature of man,” he explained.” And I’d like to believe, and I think I need to believe, for my sanity, that most people [were] scared or misinformed. That fear and misinformation are the enemies. When I look at this situation and the difficulty of comprehending the science and all of that, I give the NFL the benefit of the doubt. And I encourage them to push forward.”
The league has continued to fight some research into the causes of CTE — on Monday word came that it had backed out of funding a $16 million study — and the league clearly does not endorse Concussion. The real cost of the crisis’ impact on the game’s health, however, will not be measured by money spent in studies or lawsuits; the most significant long-term effect of the CTE discovery — and, in many ways, the role of Concussion in publicizing the scandal — will be determined by the parents who may or may not decide to raise the next generation of football players.
Smith speaks fondly of watching his son Trey, now 23, play football for Oaks Christian High School, a powerhouse program in Los Angeles. But had he known then what he knows now about the risks associated with the game, he admits that things may have gone differently.
“It would be a very, very difficult situation,” he said. “It’s hard when somebody loves something the way that my son loved playing football. I would have to make sure that he had the information and we would have to sit down as a family and make a decision. I don’t think I’m the type of parent that would pull him and say, ‘Absolutely not, over my dead body.’ I don’t think I’d do that, but I would hope that I could convince him to spend his time elsewhere.”
Smith has spent time recalibrating his own career in the last few years, following the failure of 2013’s sci-fi movie After Earth, which co-starred his other son, Jaden. Starting with last February’s heist-romance Focus and now with Concussion, Smith has focused on more original films — he co-stars in next summer’s Suicide Squad and an upcoming drama called Collateral Beauty with Oscar winner Helen Mirren. There’s a chance he’ll return for a pair of Bad Boys sequels, but he made the conscious decision to step aside for the upcoming follow-up to Independence Day, the smash hit alien-invasion flick that made him a global superstar when it premiered in 1996. (An official site for the sequel explains Smith’s absence by noting that his character, Steven HIller, was killed in a plane crash.)
“I was working on Suicide Squad during that time,” he said, referring to the film’s production. “[Independence Day director] Roland [Emmerich] and I had talked about it. The trailer looks really cool. I’m going to be sitting around with tears in my eyes when that one comes out… It was terrible when I found out my character died.”
With a third Oscar nomination a very real possibility, though, it’s likely that Smith will have a pretty decent consolation prize. And if people heed the warning of Concussion, maybe he’ll have really helped save the day.
Watch a special report about ‘Concussion:’