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An interview with filmmaker Sean Pamphilon about his latest work-in-progress, The United States of Football

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Reuters

Did football contribute to Junior Seau's apparent suicide?

Following Seau's death from a reportedly self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest Wednesday, speculation ran rampant that the popular retired NFL linebacker's seeming decision to kill himself may be linked to head trauma stemming from the sport—as was the case with Dave Duerson, a 50-year-old former NFL safety who shot himself fatally in the chest last year and subsequently was discovered to be suffering from the same degenerative brain disease found in 20 other deceased players.

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Seau's death—which happened on the same day the NFL suspended four current and former New Orleans Saints players for their role in a cash-for-injuries scandal dubbed "BountyGate"—comes at a time when football's inherent violence and the damage it does to participants has come under increasing public scrutiny.

To discuss the wider cultural implications of Seau's death, the Saints' scandal, and football's ongoing identity crisis, The Atlantic spoke with documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon. He recently released audio of former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams imploring his players to injure opponents and is working on a film, The United States of Football, which explores the sport's dark, beloved place in America society.


As someone who has been working on a documentary film that examines our cultural obsession with football—and the physical and psychological damage inflicted by the sport—what do you make of Junior Seau's apparent suicide?

My reaction was no different than it was when Dave Duerson did the same thing. I've likened Duerson's suicide to the monk who set himself on fire to protest the Vietnam War. ... I think the Seau case is resonating with the public more because he played for 20 years, had a higher profile and so many people who knew him talked about what an exceptional person he is.

I have a producer friend who spent several days with Junior Seau about a decade ago and my friend told me he was his favorite athlete he interviewed during his ten years in the business. Junior was an incredible human being whose life became complicated in the past few years for reasons that I expect to reveal themselves shortly.

Much of the initial reaction to Seau's death has centered around the possibility that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disorder linked to head trauma that has been found in the brains of a number of deceased football players. Is this speculation warranted? Why or why not?

If he tests positive for CTE, perhaps people will think about his death more three-dimensionally. I would be shocked of there isn't a significant amount of [cognitive-impairing] tau protein in his brain. The numbers speak for themselves and people should inform themselves on the subject.

I have friends who played in the league for many years and there may come a time where I won't be able to see them anymore because there might be a legitimate fear of their impulses. This makes me incredibly sad for them, their friends, and especially their families. I have one friend who told me he may have to move away from his family, in order to avoid a Chris Benoit situation. My hope is the men who display such physical courage on the football field will have the humility to admit how damaged they are, so players can support each other as a community and get professional help. I have met players who feel deep shame for the things they cannot control.

Seau's death occurred on the same day that the NFL punished New Orleans Saints players for their roles in the ongoing "BountyGate" scandal. Are these simply unfortunate and unrelated incidents, or are they connected in some way?

I think these events are connected in a sense that a coach was specifically calling for [the type of] acts—blows to the head—which most likely contributed to Seau taking his life. The coaches at all levels need to be educated about brain trauma and not ask these men—and kids—to do things which lead to consequences they would not wish on their own son.

I interviewed the principal of my son's junior high school today because they just eliminated their tackle football program. I am not personally advocating for the banning of football on any level. However, this is a public health concern and needs to be taken seriously.

Why did you decide to release the now-infamous audio of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams instructing his players during a pregame speech to deliberately injury opponents?

I wasn't thinking right after I [witnessed Williams speaking] that I would put it out. Not at all. I was thinking that I got caught up in a really weird moment. The energy in that room was just different. It was clear that Williams was running shit, the way he spoke and walked around, he had the aura of "I'm not just a coordinator, I'm the fucking man."

The real smoking gun is when Williams says to put it underneath [49ers quarterback] Alex Smith's chin and does like this [Pamphilon rubbed his fingers together in a cash-holding motion] and says, "the first one's on me." I have that on video tape. And at the moment, it didn't resonate with me. Even when he mentioned [trying to injure opposing players' knees] I thought, "You know what, these guys are crazy, I guess this is what they do.'"

But when he said to go after the guy with the concussion [San Francisco kick returner Kyle Williams],that got me. I couldn't believe he just said that. I was like, "Wow, how do you have this mentality when so much information [about brain trauma in football] is out there?" And if you don't know this, you're just abusing people, and using ignorance to do it.

Still, I wouldn't have reported it. I'm not that guy. The next week, it was reported that the Giants were going after the same guy [Williams]. So I figured, okay, that's part of public record, maybe I'll put a voiceover into my documentary that I was in a football meeting—not even put the pro context in it—where I saw this stuff, put it against the visual of the article about the Giants, to strengthen the point that it wasn't just an isolated incident.

The game-changer for me was when the NFL put the [BountyGate] story out, and Williams said, "We knew we were wrong." I was like, "you know what, man? You knew you were wrong. You were in charge. There's no democracy in football. We knew? Really? Who was your board of directors?" Most of those guys in the room have non-guaranteed contracts. He threw his players directly under the bus. And especially with all of these [concussion] lawsuits going on, I thought it was important for the American public to have an idea of who is controlling stuff, and who is not.

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Patrick Hruby is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to Sports on Earth, ESPN.com, and Washingtonian magazine, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. He is a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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