Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The United States of Football

For "The United States of Football," his examination of the brain damage suffered by football players from the NFL down to the Peewees, Sean Pamphilon has commendably interviewed individuals offering a wide range of perspective: current and former NFL players, their wives, the top doctors and scientists studying CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), coaches and administrators, members of Congress.

None of the talking heads, though, makes as strong an impression as the sight of former NFL lineman Ralph Wenzel, a gentle giant, reduced to a near-vegetative state before his death at age 69. Or another former player who died driving a freeway at high speed - in the opposite direction. Or the player who killed himself with a gunshot to the head, carefully avoiding his brain so that it could be preserved and examined. 

Though I have my favorites (tennis, hockey, basketball), I'll watch almost any sport if I'm bored enough. Football (like boxing) has never held the slightest interest for me, and seeing this film I don't feel I've missed a thing. The damage caused by this barbaric, medieval game doesn't just affect pros; the earliest case of CTE has been found in a child, and one helmet-on-helmet collision between third graders registered force equivalent to NCAA Division I. (The helmets have, in fact, exacerbated the problem, diminishing the pain the player feels - though in no way mitigating the brain trauma - and giving a false sense of invincibility.) 

There's a racial component to this mess that also merits mention. As the author Malcolm Gladwell (unfortunately spelled "Malcom" in a large onscreen caption) notes, the clear weight and trend of the scientific evidence will soon reach a tipping point at which denial and half-measures are not options. At that time, the national conversation will likely go in a direction similar to military service: we know what the risks are, but those who are willing (or see no other choice but) to take them can be sacrificed. And the demography of that group is disproportionately non-white. 

Several of Pamphilon's interviewees draw the analogy to smoking. Like the tobacco industry, the NFL has known it's been peddling deadly merchandise for a lot longer than it's let on. You're going to be reading a lot more horror stories in the years to come. As for the film, it's slick but sloppily made, spending disproportionate time on former New Orleans Saint Kyle Turley and his band and on Pamphilon's own decision whether to allow his son to play football (which turns out to be moot in the end).

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