Minnesota native Caitlin McNally discussed the thinking leading up to Football High, a documentary that she co-produced and that debuted on Frontline last week. Sports concussions weren't intended as the focus of the piece, she said, but they became a central theme as more concussion research emerged. The documentary, which focused primarily on a powerhouse varsity program in Arkansas, can be viewed here. McNally invited viewers to also review an additional piece on the glitz and glamor of today's varsity football stars.
1) What surprised you most during the process of filming and producing Football High? Did the documentary meet initial expectations or go off in unexpected ways?
Our initial goal was to explore the new face of high school football. The sport has become a national phenomenon at the high school level, and we were interested in why and how that has happened in the past decade. From year-round, pro-like training regimens to television and sponsorship deals negotiated around teams, we wanted to see what this new brand of high school football looks like. We were also aware of all the attention lavished on teams and college prospects via websites devoted to rankings and evaluations. All these external forces intrigued us, and we wanted to know how they may be influencing and changing one of America's most beloved sports institutions. We wanted to follow an ambitious team on the ground trying to break through to the next level, and that's how we first became interested in Shiloh Christian in Arkansas.
As time went on, and the conversation about head injuries in the NFL heated up over the course of the 2010 season, we realized there was another important story to tell. We were coming across new scientific research about the degenerative mental effects of head injuries on football players, and some of the research was suggesting that cognitive impairment could be starting as young as high school. Then, over the course of our time in Arkansas, a high school football payer died after having passed out from heat stroke during August practice. All of this prompted us to look at some of the safety issues concerning high school football, as well as the national phenomenon the sport has become ...
... I would say the biggest surprise for me was the level of media savvy amongst the teenage football players I met. When I was 17, there's no way I could have handled all the attention and scrutiny that high-profile high school athletes receive today. I was extremely struck by what cool customers most of these young men are. They've grown up in a culture where regular people are splashed across media all the time, so perhaps that contributes to their ease around cameras. Whatever the case, they are impressive in their camera ready-ness.
2) What is your overall view/experience of youth sports, and did the documentary have much impact on that?
I played youth sports -- I ski raced, like a good Minnesotan -- and that experience was one of the most valuable I had growing up. The bitter temperatures, the late nights under the blazing lights up and down the runs at Buck Hill, the long bumpy bus rides to tiny one-lift resorts in rural Wisconsin and Minnesota -- even though I was a mediocre racer at best, those experiences toughened me up and stick with me to this day. If anything, making this documentary reinforced my view that physically and mentally demanding sports do an enormous amount for young people. With football, the team aspect is especially powerful and profound, and I was very struck by that while working on this film. So many of the players I met talked about their teammates as brothers-at-arms: much like soldiers, they'd do anything for each other and the team.
After what I've learned about the lack of strong regulation overseeing youth sports, and the lack of appropriate resources to support teams in some places, I hope we'll all take a look at what we can do to make sure athletes and coaches have everything they need to build the safest as well as most successful programs possible, especially as youth sports become more and more intense. But nothing about making this film diminished my admiration for these extremely disciplined, dedicated high school athletes, or the incredibly hard-working coaches who sacrifice so much for the players they teach. In fact, working on this film only strengthened my respect for these people and the pressure they're under.
3) With the information you were able to provide to viewers, do you think it will (or should?) make them pause about allowing their kids to play football or other youth sports?
I'll speak to football, since that's the sport we covered and the one I've come to understand the most about. I don't think people should keep their kids from playing football as a result of the information we provided in the documentary. As we mention in the film, the research we present is preliminary, and no one knows yet what it will mean for the sport. I asked many football experts and sports journalists if they'd let their kids play football in the wake of the emerging scientific research, and the majority said yes. However, many of these same people also said that they would want to make sure their son or daughter's team had an athletic trainer on staff. If that wasn't the case, they'd want to make sure the team's coaches had ample medical training beyond the basic requirements of most states. I thought this was a reasonable position, and one that I imagine I'd take as well, if I had a son who wanted to play football (or a daughter or son who wanted to play any sport where concussive or other serious injuries are a concern).
Like with most complex questions, I think we have to strive to strike a balance in our conversation. There's no reason to overreact to nascent research, nor is there reason to condemn a sport that gives so many young men such a sense of purpose and accomplishment. But there's certainly every reason to make sure that ample safety measures are in place for these young men to play the game they love without worry or severe physical consequence.
4) The quote from the teen about only being 17 once and worrying about pain later was compelling. From all of your interviews with the players, do you feel they are realistic about the rewards of the game versus the risks?
The quote you mention is pretty much representative of the attitude I found amongst the vast majority of players I met and interviewed. And really, how "realistic" were any of us when we were 17?! These boys have been part of a system, many of them for years and years, that reinforces toughness, courage and discipline. The benefits of playing football are immediate for them -- the adrenaline of the game, the rush of physical exertion, the glory of winning, the lessons learned from defeat. It's very hard to sit a 17-year-old down amidst all those emotions and try to talk about possible long term effects that you can't see, that you can't be sure of like a broken bone or a torn ACL. When it comes to head injuries particularly, how do you convince a 17-year-old to worry about something that many adults themselves concede is such a gray area?
I'm not sure if the responsibility for weighing the risks of the game versus the rewards lies with the players, especially in the face of the extremely intense youth sports culture we've created these days. We encourage our football players to play through pain, to overcome, to persevere. The toughness and physicality are a major part of the attraction of the game. As long as we value high school football in our communities, I think it's the adults' responsibility -- the coaches, administrators and parents -- to make sure they understand the possible risks of the game, and to do everything to mitigate those risks.