If you’re a football player, coach, parent or fan, you should make the effort to see “The United States of Football.”
The new documentary about football’s concussion crisis from filmmaker Sean Pamphilon — the guy who exposed Gregg Williams’ nefarious role in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal — is in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles this weekend. It’ll be released wider next weekend.
The movie will jar you. It’ll make you wince. It’ll make you think about the game you’ve loved since you were a kid.
Mostly, it’ll leave you feeling conflicted. Even Pamphilon – who’s on a crusade to improve medical care in youth football – feels that way.
“I’m a huge football fan,” Pamphilon said in a recent phone interview. “That’s the part to me that’s really challenging. … As a culture, we’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that we’re watching something that devastates people.”
Pamphilon chronicles some of that devastation, and at times it’s hard to watch. His cameras capture Pro Football Hall of Famer John Mackey in the late stages of his life in an almost vegetative state, slumped over and unresponsive. Likewise former NFL lineman Ralph Wenzel, who died last year because of complications caused by dementia.
Pamphilon thoroughly examines the handling of head trauma in all levels of football, from the NFL to youth leagues, but his intent isn’t to destroy the sport. Rather, it’s to enlighten people – parents, in particular – about its potential dangers.
“It has such power behind it emotionally,” said former NFL lineman Kyle Turley, who’s suffering through post-concussion symptoms and is among the film’s primary protagonists. “It makes you stop and think. It will force the game to acknowledge the concussion, what it is, the importance of dealing with it properly. There are long-term repercussions the game doesn’t need.”
Turley is among thousands of former players suing the NFL; they claim the league did not properly warn them about the consequences of concussions.
The NFL, through a spokesman, declined to comment on “The United States of Football.” The league has taken several steps in recent years to address the concussion crisis, including this year adding independent neurologists to the sidelines.
Concussions are far and away Commissioner Roger Goodell’s biggest concern. Pamphilon is among many (myself included) who believe Goodell’s intentions are good but that he isn’t doing enough at a time when the NFL – the country’s most popular sports league – can set a positive example. Goodell has turned down Pamphilon’s interview requests on multiple occasions.
The sense of conflict is rampant. ESPN on Thursday had to defend pulling out of a partnership with PBS’ “Frontline” on a documentary about concussions. ESPN said the decision was based on concerns over editorial control; cynics theorized that the network was pressured to do so by the NFL, to whom it pays billions for the rights to broadcast “Monday Night Football.”
I feel conflicted as well. I cover football for a living. Immediately after watching “The United States of Football,” I watched the season premiere of “Hard Knocks,” in which members of the Cincinnati Bengals pounded on one another in the “Oklahoma drill.” I love writing about and watching football. But unless my sons are kickers, I’m not letting them play it.
That decision – whether his eldest son should play football – was the impetus for Pamphilon making the film. They ultimately decided that Alix, who’s now 15, would play baseball.
“I like watching my kid play football,” Pamphilon said. “But I love my kid’s mind.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services