America's Most Dangerous Football Is in the Pee-Wee Leagues, Not the NFL

The United States of Football reveals the risks of football brain injuries, both among pros and in Pop Warner—where "our worst coaches are coaching the most critical position.”

This weekend, the National Football League would like you to see The Butler, We’re the Millers, or maybe The End of The Worldanything 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, thoughsome might say the most troubling issueis 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 informedwhatever age he is. A lot of parents pressure their kids to play, and I absolutely think that is wrong.”

Presented by

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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