Can America Quit Football?

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


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.

Has too much of the discussion focused on Gregg Williams?

It's not just about Gregg Williams. It's about the culture. Everything trickles down. I've seen coaches in amateur football, like young kids, speak in a way that you should not speak to children. I've seen high school coaches scream and curse at these kids for making a mental error—well, what if a kid makes a mistake on a math test? Does the teacher get to start screaming, "You're fucking up!"

Why do we give these football coaches this anointed position? What other sport besides football do these guys get to treat our children like pawns? One of the things I asked people throughout making the film was, "Should coaches be vetted the way we vet teachers? Or should they just be guys with football experience?"

To me, Williams was the height of this mentality. People say that's just a part of football culture. Well, the culture needs to change. It has to change.

What is The United States of Football about? Why are you making it?

It's a cultural examination of football from pee-wee to the pros. It's about the motivation for playing and enjoying the sport. The escapism. The violence, for sure—it feeds something in our culture. There's a reason why baseball isn't the top sport anymore. It's too slow. People aren't getting the shit knocked out of them. We're a very aggressive culture. That's why there's so much pushback when somebody wants to change the game, all this, "Oh, they just want to put the skirts on them." And it's not just about players. It's about their families. It's about the trash—the emotional trash—their wives have to pick up when they're done playing.

I started working on it because I realized I was basically training my son to play football. Playing in the park all the time. We had this one patch of grass in a park in Brooklyn that was our field. It was our special place. In 2004, I was interviewing Kyle Turley for Run Ricky Run. He said to me, "If you have a kid, don't let him play football. Let him play any other sport." He was adamant about that. My son was six at the time. We kept playing in the park. Five years later, I read an article about Turley having a seizure. I had heard of CTE before. It never stuck with me. But after reading about Kyle, it did. I felt a personal connection with him. Because of his issues, I was becoming more interested in the health issues that players were having. And I had to decide: Did I still want my son to play football?

So what does football mean to our culture, and why does it occupy such an important place?

I think it means everything. I think it feeds and fills a lot of gaps. A lot of people don't necessarily love what they do. They have a couple days a week where they don't have to think about it. I love football. I've had issues with depression. For whatever reason, I never felt down on Sundays.

Football means money for television networks. It means escapism for most of the country. I read a book by Mariah Burton Nelson called The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football. That's a really interesting concept. The game feeds something that's primal in males; in a lot of women, it feeds something sexual. To a degree, of course. Not across the board. But these men are out there doing something that other men can't do. Who do men want to be like? Who do women want to be with? Football players are those guys in our culture.

You've written about being 25 years old, standing on the sidelines of a 49ers game, and seeing former NFL receiver Alvin Harper absorb a punishing hit. Only you didn't care about his well-being. You just wanted to be entertained. Does society lack empathy for the same football players it exalts?

Seeing that made me love football more than ever. I felt like I was involved in the hit, but didn't feel the actual pain. It was amazing. I had always heard NFL Films mic'd up players. That's nothing like being on the field. You feel enveloped by it. Like the whole violent impact surrounds you. And you don't have to suffer. It was one of the sickest feelings I ever had. So yeah, I think we lack empathy. Some of that is because the players make so much money. People say they'd play professional football for free. That's ridiculous. Nobody would. People play Madden video games for free. Actually, you pay to play Madden. No one would even practice for free against these guys. Not one day. And if they did, they'd be a lot more interested in health care for these guys. Because they would feel the pain.

I'm 42. I'd like to believe that if I was 25 right now—and had all this information and awareness about [brain trauma] and players dying—then seeing that Harper hit would bother me. That it would resonate in a different way. But people cling to football. To penetrate that bubble, you literally have to say, "This could be killing our kids."

You've also written, "Any parent who has a young tackle football playing child with an underdeveloped brain is committing apathetic child abuse if they do not educate themselves on this issue." Why?

I wrote that because I interviewed a neurorehabilitation specialist. She talked to me about when she has kids in her office. I asked her, what's the difference between the times when she has the kids by themselves versus when the parents are there? When the parents are in there, it's scholarships. How they can make it in football. When the kids are alone, it's a different story. They feel so much pressure. They feel they have to do this to mitigate the financial damage they're going to cause their families by going to college. They shouldn't feel that. And as a young person, you shouldn't be in a situation where you have to make mature decisions. It's the parents who have to make the mature decisions. Too often, they put their own self-interest ahead of the interest of the child.

They don't understand that it's not just about second-impact syndrome killing you. It goes way deeper than that. There are people who literally do not become the people they were supposed to be becoming. Or they experience huge bouts of depression. You can't put a number on that. I'm not putting a hyperbolic statement out there. That neurorehabilitation specialist sees this on a daily basis.

Turley says he thinks pee-wee football should be banned. [Concussion expert] Dr. Robert Cantu, who knows a hell of a lot more about this subject than I do, said that kids shouldn't play until they are 14. [New Orleans quarterback] Drew Brees is from Texas. Football is king there. He told me, "Kids shouldn't be exposed to that constant hitting, like you would with a football helmet on, until after the age of 13." He has two kids—one that's a year old, one that's three years old—and he said, "We're ten years away from my oldest being in a position where he could play football if he wanted to and if we felt like that was appropriate." So Brees wouldn't even make the decision of whether his kids should play until they're 13 years old.

You've said that you've given up "gluten, sugar, caffeine, cigarettes. But I simply cannot give up football." Really? Even now?

Yep. Can't do it. I don't root for the same things I used to. But I still watch it as physical poetry. Every play, everybody matters. To know how many reps go into that, how much practice, to see that play out in front of you with 22 athletes, there's something very special about that. To me, it's not about the hitting. It's about the choreography, the intricacies of it.

I appreciate the game. I still love it. But I watch it differently. There's so much hypocrisy. You see a guy get totally jacked. He's down on the ground, we think he might be paralyzed. Everybody is holding hands and praying for this person. But as soon as he gets carted off the field, it's like the volume comes back on. A pause for a moment, and then someone on TV says, "Well, that puts it in perspective." No. What puts it in perspective is the fact that five minutes later, we don't give a shit.

Are you allowing your son to play football?

No. Now, if he's a 16-, 17-year-old kid and says, "Dad, it's in my blood, I have to do this," I would have a hard time saying no. I honestly would. I don't want to live his life for him.

But I think my kid is smart. The last thing he wants to do is affect his brain because he knows it's his future. If you give him enough information, he can make smart choices. I hope people who see my film can make informed decisions. I think there are young kids who will watch this film and actually be able to challenge their parents, to say, "You know what? I don't think football is a good idea for me." I'd love to give young people the strength to stand up to their fathers. And it's not me saying that. It's all the people in the film.

So when my son is older, I'll give him the opportunity to make that choice. Still, I would pray he doesn't play. I'm not religious, but I would get religion on that one.