Film Review: The United States of Football

Documentary adds to discussions about the violent sport of football without being a definitive treatment.

A pigskin-loving filmmaker wrestles with the game's increasing brutality in Sean Pamphilon's The United States of Football, an advocacy doc that places most of the blame for player brain injuries on NFL brass and coaches from the pro down to the Pee Wee level. Though full of material that will move sports fans, some questions of emphasis and lack of polish make the film less galvanizing than it might've been; its best chance to reach sport fans is on VOD.

The film's generic title offers little clue of its focus on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative disease afflicting many pro football players, and the practices that have made brain trauma an increasing concern. Pamphilon is a longtime sports journalist who last year stirred controversy by releasing recordings in which New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams explicitly instructed players to target the heads of opponents known to have suffered concussions. Here he expands on that subject, gathering interviews with players who've suffered injuries recently and older NFL vets whose disorders have left them paralyzed by dementia.

Pamphilon is particularly interested in All-Pro offensive tackle Kyle Turley, who after a history of in-game concussions began to suffer seizures in daily life; now, he and his wife worry he'll become another in a line of football stars who lose their grip on themselves, becoming inexplicably violent with loved ones or forgetting who they are entirely. Scenes of the Steelers' Ralph Wenzel and the Colts' John Mackey, who died in their 60s after years of being wholly dependent on their wives' care, speak to the latter harrowing possibility.

The film offers enough discussion with both scientists and sports observers to make the link between contemporary football play and brain injury hard to deny, and chronicles the political wrangling over ways to establish NFL rules and policies to make the sport safer. But while Pamphilon's use of himself in the film succeeds in some ways (we see him "toughening up" his pre-K son for football in playground videos, then follow as he begins to worry about letting him play the sport at all), the film is clumsy in attempts to play Roger & Me with controversial NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

It also stumbles in its emphasis on Turley's post-football career as a musician: One or two scenes of ballads inspired by players who succumbed to CTE would have been more than enough, especially since the stories themselves—like that of Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest so his deteriorating brain could be used in research on the disease—are already heartbreaking enough.