EXCLUSIVE: Suddenly, there is a collision of feature projects based on the subject of debilitating concussions on professional football players. I’ve told you that Ridley Scott is pulling together a project he wants to direct on the hot-button issue and that Blue Caprice star Isaiah Washington is planning to star in an indie project with writer/director Matthew A. Cherry (a former NFL wide receiver). Now, Parkes/MacDonald Productions partners Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald have won an auction for screen rights to League Of Denial: The NFL, Concussions And The Battle For Truth. The book was written by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada (co-author of the baseball steroids scandal book Game Of Shadows) and Steve Fainaru, who won a Pulitzer for his Washington Post series on private contractors in Iraq. Parkes/MacDonald was able to move quickly because of its partnership with Abu Dhabi-based Image Nation, which allowed them to secure the book without waiting for a studio to say yes.
This is the book that was the basis for the critically acclaimed investigative Frontline documentary that aired on PBS this year and shone a light on the dangers of head injuries and the NFL’s failure to protect its players that eventually led to a $765 million settlement with thousands of players who waged a class action lawsuit. There was a particular focus on Mike Webster, the longtime center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who was one of the toughest guys to ever play the game. After his death, Webster’s brain was examined and found to have a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that was the result of what doctors said was the equivalent of Webster suffering the head trauma equivalent of being in 25,000 car accidents over his high school, college and 17 years in the NFL.
Parkes and MacDonald will begin meeting with writers and filmmakers, unsure exactly whether this is best served as a feature of a pay cable effort. There is certainly a compelling story in Webster (who died of age 50 of a heart attack) and the coroner who discovered the mental condition that is now showing up all too often in gridiron greats, several of whom (all-pros Junior Seau and Dave Duerson) committed suicide, and others (including Tony Dorsett and Jim McMahon) who are showing the effects of all those concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits and collisions with artificial turf that sits atop a concrete base.
As the center for the Steelers, Webster personified the working-class player in a working-class steel town, a star in the country’s most popular gladiator sport. He played hurt, was part of that Steel Curtain team that won four Super Bowls, and hiked the ball and helped keep QB Terry Bradshaw from being crushed by opposing defenses. According to the authors, Webster struggled mightily after his career. Angry and confused for reasons he could not explain, Webster’s mood swings and fits of rage cost him his marriage and he died a young man. The conclusion was that football, which was his life, ultimately cost Webster his life. Enter Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist from the Allegheny Medical coroner’s office. Raised Catholic but with a deep belief in tribal mysticism, Omalu believed the corpses in his office were trying to speak through him, and he took his work very seriously. He paid special attention to Webster even though he knew nothing about football and the NFL was denying these maladies were league related. Omalu discovered CTE, a condition that occurs when the brain is injured, and protein deposits form in the brain. Enough concussions and those lesions overwhelm the healthy brain cells, creating a condition that is the equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease.
These are the kinds of thoughtful projects that have become endangered as studios cut back development drastically, but it is worthy. I watched every Steelers game as a kid (in those nascent days of cable we got their NBC feed in New York), and it becomes harder to watch these highlight hits knowing how much former greats are suffering and what is in store for some current gridironers.
Parkes/MacDonald started this development financing relationship with Image Nation in 2009, and they are beginning to see pictures emerge. The first is I Am Malala, a featur edocu about Malala Yousafzai directed by Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth helmer Davis Guggenheim. That has begun shooting and next is The Fall Guy, the McG-directed stuntman film that will star Dwayne Johnson. That film will begin shooting July 14. Gersh reps the authors.