I'm a cynical man, and as I watched tonight's episode of Frontline, directed by frequent series contributor Rachel Dretzin, I couldn’t help but connect the fact that it was produced by PBS’ Boston affiliate (WGBH) and credited a bulk of its academic sourcing to Boston University. This little part of me that doesn’t trust anyone, no matter how closely I ally myself with their cultural or intellectual perspective, wondered if “Football High” wasn’t ostensibly chasing timely, national subject matter—brain damage and heatstroke-related death and injury among football players—to the mutual benefit of its participating institutions and fundraising efforts for their programs. As Dretzin herself details, concussion-awareness in particular has become a hot-button issue in the NFL over the past couple of seasons, and that extra attention has found its way to teen athletics, just as the adolescent game has become even more physical and high-stakes.
This, of course, is a potentially irrelevant association, since “Football High” illustrates in-depth how BU neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee has broken tremendous ground in linking school-aged football players’ exposure to daily impact with a life-threatening mental degenerative disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). It’s also, obviously, an important topic, no matter who initiates or moderates the discussion, and both PBS and university labs like BU’s are doing worthy, significant work. Consistent with that, Dretzin’s interviews with players, coaches, staff, and parents from the small, pigskin-crazed town of Springdale, Arkansas—in addition to other nearby areas and regional hot spots for youth football—offer both a fascinating slice of life and glimpse inside the culture clash that’s potentially determining thousands of students’ health.
If I have one major complaint about “Football High,” it would be that the stories of heatstroke victims Will James (who survived and returned to the field) and Tyler Davenport (who passed away after weeks in a medically induced coma), felt comparatively under-nurtured and dramatically protracted to bookend the episode. Granted, the facts of James and Davenport’s cases are all available online, but building suspense up until the final minutes over which of the two boys would live through their ordeal made me feel complicit in some kind of morbid curiosity, rather than interested in the “why” and “how” behind Davenport’s death. However, the upsetting images of Davenport looking weak and discolored while unconscious in the hospital, as well as University of Connecticut heatstroke specialist Dr. Doug Casa’s blunt testimony about the condition's preventability, will stay with you.
One tremendous positive asset to “Football High,” which speaks to Dretzin’s experience as a serious broadcast journalist, is that there are no clear sides in this debate, though there are central characters. You have star players like Shiloh Christian School quarterback (and current incoming Auburn University freshman QB) Kiehl Frazier, who’s being encouraged by cartoonishly self-concerned “promoter” Walt Williams, who likens working with Kiehl to “marketing a product” with surreal detachment. Williams goes on to justify Frazier’s premature media training and persona-shaping by prophesying that those who give less than the team leader’s effort will be lucky to make in a year what his jackpot’s about to pull in on an average week.
There are also the coaches, like Shiloh’s Josh Floyd, who’s at times a hostile aggressor with his players but also sympathetically embattled from high expectations in the community and the scrutiny of his father, Ronnie, pastor of the local mega-church and primary Shiloh Christian fundraiser (I would have liked a lot more on Ronnie and his role within the football program and was surprised Frontline was unable to independently unearth the dollar number of his donations to the school). And there are parents, like Craig Harper, a Fortune 500 COO who teeters ambiguously between pushy dad and concerned father to SHC running back Garrett Harper, who’s suffered two concussions in consecutive seasons, and reporters, such as Sports Illustrated’s David Epstein and ESPN’s Gregg Easterbrook, both of whom seem capable of exploring the cultural middle between CTE science and local tradition, but whose soundbites mostly cede airtime to less editorialized authority on either side.
The strongest compliment I can give to “Football High”—aside from it providing vital factual information about the risks being posed every day to its young participants—is that I didn’t come away feeling either persuaded toward a different point of view or more righteously confident in my pre-existing beliefs. Judging any of the players, coaches, trainers, or parents in communities like Shiloh for carrying on tradition and valuing certain principles of competition is superficial and counterproductive. Likewise, dismissing someone’s belief that no athletic triumph is worth risking physiological and neurological health of a child is stubborn in its own way.
As with any polarizing issue, progress necessitates open-minded and considerate dialogue, and empirical arguments such as those provided in “Football High” are essential talking points that keep a volatile matter like this from falling out of topical favor. And given the complex and still-mysterious nature of CTE’s relationship to on-field contact, it makes sense that an uninterrupted bulk of runtime would be spent reinforcing its very serious implications, even if James and Davenports’ stories were subsequently imposed with more narrative function. If all the above explains Dretzin and WGBH’s rationale for producing this exposé when they did, then it’s possible their timing couldn’t have been better.
- I kept wondering if they avoided telling former WWE superstar-turned-trauma expert Chris Nowinski’s backstory as a pro wrestler to avoid discrediting the work being done at BU in any way, but it was a surprising omission.
- I understand these moments are edited in to provoke, but I was still shocked to hear Will James’ coach at Pulaski encouraging his kids to go for the “kill shot” in advance of the game against Shiloh.
- I can’t stand when documentarians do that thing where you only hear their voice in the room asking questions during moments where they’re exposing a particularly raw truth (a la the Arkansas director of activities copping to the state’s lack of mandates on weather-related fatigue). It’s the closest to outright Michael Moore-ian partiality “Football High” gets.
- One trainer acknowledging that, on the sidelines, they now use the clinical term for getting one’s “bell rung,” i.e. head trauma, was one of the more resonant soundbites.
- Ewww, brains.
- Did it really take this long for people within football to realize that physical impact on the brain every day can grind down its functioning, a la wear and tear on a car, posing as big a risk as blunt trauma? Sometimes it is amazing how un-nuanced sports intellect can be. And scary.
- For the record, I’ve been to a “Friday Night Lights” game in Texas and was terrified of all the teens in attendance, on and off the field. Whether they’re 300 pounds or 120, I still don’t trust riled up high school kids with that mischievous glint in their eye.