This weekend, the National Football League would like you to see The Butler, We’re the Millers, or maybe The End of The World—anything but The United States of Football. Sean Pamphilon’s documentary, controversial even before its release, is about the dangers of America’s No. 1 sports obsession, football, from youth leagues to the pros. Pamphilon, a Emmy and a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker who exposed the New Orleans Saints’ “Bountygate” scandal in April 2012, has assembled nearly three years’ worth of investigative reporting on the damage football, as it’s played today at all levels, can do to the human brain.
Like the game itself, The United States of Football is, in turns, exciting, stimulating, and heartbreaking. There’s no other word but that last one to describe what too many hits to the head did to the late, great Baltimore Colts’ Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey: In 2000, when he was just 59, he became the first NFL player to be diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia. In Pamphilon’s film, Mackey’s wife Sylvia feeds him, constantly calling to him “John Mackey!” because, she says, “I don’t want him to forget his name.” The United States of Football also tells the story of Dave Duerson, an 11-year veteran, most notably of the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl champions, who shot himself in the chest in 2011 at age 50. Neurologists later confirmed that Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.
One of the most troubling issues raised by the documentary, though—some might say the most troubling issue—is the potential danger to boys playing youth or “pee-wee” football, which includes boys anywhere from the age of 5 to 14. There are numerous youth leagues, the most popular among them being Pop Warner, which boasted more than 250,000 participants in 2010.
Dr. Ann McKee, chief neuropathologist at Boston University who testified before a House Judiciary committee on football brain injuries in 2009, explains in the film that “because a young athlete’s brain is still developing, the effects of a concussion, or even many smaller hits over a season, can be far more detrimental, compared to the head injury in an older player.” (Often accused of trying to kill football, Dr. McKee is a devoted Packers fan. “I’m a cheesehead!” she proclaims proudly.)
One of the film’s most jarring moments comes when Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter declares, “Our best coaches are coaching our best players, and that’s in professional football. Our worst coaches are coaching the most critical position, and that is the 9-, 10-, 11-year-old people.”
When I talked to Pamphilon last week, he explained, “At this level, you have no idea what a coach’s qualifications are as an instructor or his maturity as a man.”
Many organizations, including Pop Warner, simply require coaches to complete an online course every three years.
On the Pop Warner league’s website, you can read that there is “an absence of catastrophic head and neck injuries and disruptive joint injuries found at higher levels”—but the attribution for this information isn’t offered. Pamphilon, on the other hand, cites a study at Virginia Tech in which two third-graders collided with an impact that would be considered high for college players.
Pop Warner officials did make some rule changes last year: Contact was prohibited during two-thirds of practice time, and drills that involved full speed head-on blocking and tackling were eliminated.
Still, Pamphilon is skeptical of encouraging any young boy to play tackle football. “I’m not in favor of letting anyone play football unless they understand the consequences,” he said. “I don’t think anyone should play without being informed—whatever age he is. A lot of parents pressure their kids to play, and I absolutely think that is wrong.”
Pamphilon first became concerned about football injuries when his own son, Alex, acquired a love of the game almost as soon as he could walk. The film includes home-video footage of father and young son tossing a football around; when Alex gets hit, he rolls over onto his father and laughs, “Don’t crush my skull.”
“I won’t,” his father assures him with a hug. To his parents’ great relief, Alex, now 14, eventually decided football was not going to be his thing.
But if there’s one person who functions as the “face” of The United States of Football, it’s eight-year NFL veteran-turned-country-rock singer Kyle Turley, who made headlines back in 2001 while playing for the Saints when he grabbed the hands of New York Jets’ defender Damien Robinson and pried them off the face mask of Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks, then pulled Robinson’s helmet off and threw it across the field. (He later defended his actions by saying he thought Robinson was going to break Brooks’s neck.) Turley has become an outspoken critic of both the NFL and the Players Association for lack of action to assist players suffering from the effects of CTE.
Turley is arguably even more emphatic than Pamphilon on the subject of pee-wee football. “It should be outlawed and banned,” he told me in an interview last week. “There can be serious disruption when those kids who are still developing are hurt. You can die from other sports, but those kind of injuries are freak occurrences.
“Besides, do we really know what the bad effects of young boys playing tackle football really are? Many doctors I’ve talked to have said that the real problem is cumulative, that you can’t really know how bad it is until you measure the effects of these kind of hits 10 or 20 years later,” he said.
“In football, we are letting our kids risk their health because of a game. It’s an awesome game, but we don’t need to give our kids to it.”
The United States of Football received a boost this week from two unexpected sources. First, the NFL was openly accused of pressuring ESPN into dropping their participation in the PBS series Frontline’s investigation into the NFL’s handling of head injuries to players. Pamphilon, who initially took his footage to ESPN and gave them a first-look option, said he was anything but surprised when he heard the news. “When ESPN saw the final cut of The United States of Football, they shook their heads,” he said. “Ultimately they rejected the film, and I’m glad they did. As it stands, we didn’t have to compromise anything.”
Yesterday, in a bombshell announcement, a federal judge revealed that after months of court-ordered mediation, the NFL had agreed to an approximate $765 million settlement to compensate concussion-related brain injuries among its 18,000 retired players, including paying for medical exams and underwriting research. The settlement included the provision that the agreement "cannot be considered an admission by the NFL of liability, or an admission that plaintiffs' injuries were caused by football.”
The NFL settlement, though, doesn’t offer any solace or safety to those in the gravest danger. Pee-wee football still puts young kids in jeopardy every season. And those who speak up about it, as ESPN’s debacle and the accusations that swirl around Dr. McKee illustrate, are often shamed and punished for it.
“I’ll tell you what frustrates me the most,” Turley said. “It’s when people imply that I’m some kind of traitor—that I’m anti-football. I’m not anti-football. I do feel that the game of football deserves much better than it’s getting right now.”