The Violent Truths of a Violent Game
Director Sean Pamphilon’s intimate, somewhat scattered documentary The United States of Football arrives to select theaters at a contentious time. Along with the fact that the NFL regular season is close at hand, ESPN has just announced that it will no longer continue its collaboration with PBS on a similar documentary regarding the serious cases of head trauma due to concussions in football. That Frontline documentary is scheduled for October, and if it is an all-encompassing examination into injurious effects, then Pamphilon’s is a more personal journey through the same brutal, awakening territory.
His motivation for the film comes from the looming question of whether he will let his son play football as he grows into a teenager. And so in an exploration taking years to unwrap, Pamphilon follows current and former NFL players, chronicles stories of veterans both living and dead to somehow provide a temporary answer. The subject matter of course is the often debilitating, sometimes fatal effects that concussions have had on the lives and families of NFL athletes and the building lawsuit against the league for not protecting its dedicated retirees.
His primary focus is on Kyle Turley, an ex-lineman and now travelling musician who in 2009, at the age of 34, was diagnosed as symptomatic of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Kyle is conscious of his manic characteristic, knowing all too well the devastating potential his condition can bring. Years earlier, friend and former player Justin Strelzick died in a car accident driving the wrong way on the highway during an intense bout of his bipolar symptoms. Strelzick is survived by his wife and son, who in honor of his father plays football at the high school level.
Other editorial voices include Bob Costas, Peter King, and Malcolm Gladwell, testifying to the sport’s extreme violent precedent of helmet-to-helmet contact. The poster child to these detrimental collisions is Cincinnati Bengals linebacker James Harrison, fined multiple times for his high contact hits and notorious for his frustration with commissioner Roger Goodell. The most harrowing commentary Harrison gives explains his disdain and disrespect for players who exit the game after receiving a blow to the head. Pamphilon suggests that prioritizing safety relies just as much on the culture of the locker room as it does in legal procedures.
Similar to Michael Moore’s confrontational first person style, but not as successful, Pamphilon hopelessly attempts to procure an interview with Goodell. Pamphilon is the man responsible for the infamous videotape of then New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator Greg Williams’ playoff rant to attack various injured players. His other informants-- including Sean Morey, a seven-year veteran and champion of players’ rights instituted in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement-- help fill in the gaps here and there, part of a jumbled arrangement of clips that Pamphilon has compiled throughout several years noted by his visible changing facial hairstyles.
The triumph of this film however is when it exposes the underground legal movements being spurred on by players’ wives. One of them, Eleanor Profetto, the widow to former player Ralph Wenzel who suffered from CTE, is now an expert in dementia and assists other wives experiencing the same types of intensive caring. Other wives and U.S. congresswoman Linda Sanchez have become vocal in court hearings, arguing for more safety measures and independent studies to be considered in wake of more CTE cases.
The United States of Football is an imperfect, informative but never fully didactic look into this quickly evolving process. The morals and message are hard to miss. When you see Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith shake hands and idly chuckle after signing the latest CBA, it’s easy to get mad at their negligence. The harder part, which Pamphilon and many others can attest to, is letting them know about it.
Now Playing at Quad Cinema in New York City and expanding wider in the coming weeks