THE UNITED STATES OF FOOTBALL
22 SEPTEMBER 2013..........
Sean Pamphilon, a one-time ESPN production assistant who has risen to the ranks of elite sports documentary filmmakers, has produced the very best movie on the football concussion crisis, The United States of Football. Though not accessible everywhere, it has about as wide a release as is possible for any nonfiction film not directed by Michael Moore.
Whatever you do, go see USOF.
As someone who's not paid well enough to hide his natural cantankerousness, I'll be discussing below my disappointment that Pamphilon made the movie he could readily get lots of people to pay to watch, rather than the one I would have made were I as brilliant at this medium as he is. Read on for one person's critique, but at the same time, pay no attention to the grump behind the screen.
I also am proud to call Sean a friend, so let's get the narcissistic part of this review out of the way first.
For reasons that must have cost his poor parents thousands of dollars in fees to child psychologists, Pamphilon was bound and determined to include my voice in USOF. In order to fulfill that promise, he had to go out of his way to interview me at the end of a trip to the Bay Area to visit a dying relative. All kidding aside, I am grateful and humbled to be juxtaposed in this work with assorted journalistic betters in two spots.
One clip has me sourly pointing out that the National Football League's underwriting of federal research on traumatic brain injury is equivalent to the Tobacco Institute's drafting of a report by the surgeon general.
In the other one, I verbally bodyslam Dr. Joe "ImPACT" Maroon of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFL coterie of book-cooking scientific researchers, and, of course, World Wrestling Entertainment.
(Not for the first time, I'm struck by how the real WWE reveals more about the way the world works than the fake NFL does. USOF also has on camera Pittsburgh radio commentator Mark Madden, who boasts wrestling industry broadcast roots — along with, obviously, Chris Nowinski, the Harvard football player turned WWE performer whose investigations into his own bout with concussions permanently changed the national narrative of this issue.)
If there's too much Muchnick for everyone else's taste, there's too much Bob Costas for mine. This is not directly a knock on Costas (also an acquaintance verging on friend) — for only a fool could fail to acknowledge that he is the best we have, maybe even a little too sharp for sports. The setup in which Costas asks the unanswerable question — "What can a football official responsibly tell a parent about the safety of football?" — is perfect.
Costas with a pitchfork, however, becomes a mere rhetorical Houdini, a little too fuzzy for full-blown social criticism. Pamphilon isn't Ken Burns (thankfully), and this film doesn't need the imprimatur and homilies of the most recognized face in network sports. When Costas rips ESPN for its now-defunct violence-pandering football segment "You Got Jacked Up!" I feel the same as when he pontificates about the failure of CBS's Masters coverage to probe the controversy over the racist Augusta National Golf Club. Personally, what I want to see is whether Costas, who hobnobs with swimming's biggest stars and anchors NBC's Olympics package, will ever use his platform for a word or three about the nat