There is no question DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL Players Association, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have made the safety issue a priority. But it’s one thing for lawyers to tell the masses what’s right and wrong; it’s another for, say, Drew Brees to be brutally candid, as he was when filmmaker Sean Pamphilon interviewed him last year.
Pamphilon is the Michael Moore of this passion play, the muckraker getting under everyone’s skin — including Smith’s last Friday. A hardcore NFL fan since he was 7, he has filmed 1,000 hours of footage of what will eventually become a series of films that serve as a cultural examination of America’s relationship with football.
Though Pamphilon and Brees are at odds over the release of the footage — especially after Pamphilon released audio of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’s targeting players’ body parts during the Bountygate saga last season — Pamphilon allowed me to view his interviews with Brees and former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita:
“The research that I’ve seen right now is that kids shouldn’t be exposed to that constant hitting, like you would with a football helmet on, until after the age of 13,” Brees says in the video. “Just because of your brain development and other developmental issues. I hate to use the word trauma, but there is a little bit each time — that constant thumping, thumping, thumping . And obviously as you increase in levels of play — guys are bigger, faster, stronger — those collisions become greater and greater. Therefore the trauma becomes greater and greater. It’s just like a boxer.”
“Our boys are 3 and 1 at this point,” he continues. “So, I know for sure, according to what I know right now, we’re 10 years away from my oldest being in a position where he can play football if he wanted to and we felt like that was appropriate.”
Said Fujita: “People ask me all the time, ‘If I had a son, would I let my son play football?’ This is my path. But I wouldn’t want that for one of my kids. No way in hell.”
Confession: Something deep in the reptilian part of my brain still is enraptured by big hits — the speed, force, sudden impact, the rawness of the moment.
But when the guy laid out doesn’t get up, other neurons instantaneously kick in. The medieval turns to marshmallow, and a sick feeling in the gut turns to guilt.
How could I have just marveled at the maiming of another human?
Ever since I went to Heinz Field in 2009 and saw Steelers safety Ryan Clark almost disembowel then-Ravens running back Willis McGahee — and no one at Heinz Field was sure McGahee was ever going to get up again — the conflict has grown, for me and America: How do we reconcile celebrating a game so good for your soul but so bad and unforgiving on your body and brain?
Easy answer: The culture of violence in football is simply too profitable and too in-demand to completely overhaul. The only way real change happens is if Jim Harbaugh doesn’t leave Alex Smith in that game for six more plays; if Cris Collinsworth skewers the Bears’ medical team for not checking on a groggy Jay Cutler; if Ray Lewis tells kids, via a PSA, why hard hits are okay and headhunting isn’t; and, yes, if Drew Brees, a son of football-mad Texas, has the guts to tell America his kid isn’t playing tackle football before age 14.
Otherwise, it’s just platitudes by people who don’t play or coach.
For previous Mike Wise columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.