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Frontline: Football High (DVD Review)

11 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Not rated

About 20 or 25 years ago, a surgeon friend of mine, noting escalating obesity in America brought on to significant extent by fast food, said to me: “This is going to be the next big medical scandal.” I felt the same way watching this sickening (even to sports fans) documentary — or would, if the number of afflicted parties were large enough to spur on the construction of more soapboxes for agitated observers. Of course, one victim is one too many from the kind of nonsense chronicled here.

Broadly speaking, director Rachel Dretzin’s reportage deals with the ways in which successful high school football programs now resemble those of their college counterparts — and, in fact, even more so, given that the NCAA has the clout to draw the line in the sand about what can and can’t go on in college programs. There’s also the not exactly subsidiary consideration that the bodies and brains of teenagers are still developing, and that heat stroke, comas, kidney deterioration, renal failure, blood pressure in the 40s or body temperatures of 108 are not exactly in the best interests of a new breed of “growing {linemen} boys” who weigh in at 250.

These are, of course, extreme cases, but they are the rise — brought on by a Friday Night Lights kind of culture that has gotten out of hand with no one to mandate common sense. My own hometown is football-crazy Columbus, Ohio, so where do I have any right to throw stones? But a lot of this rah-rah culture is, of course, a product of a culture from what could be termed — were this documentary a Russ Meyer movie — Beneath the Valley of the Mason-Dixon. One of Dretzin’s focus points, in a documentary that never tries to exceed the limitations of an hour’s running time, is Shiloh Christian, a private high school in Arkansas. We see that its staff is savvy (if, in a manner that has no practical application to anything else in life). And it has successfully tunnel-visioned its way to daunting success, as when it performs a 47-14 number on a rival school with young-gun aspirations (“the Ozark Hillbillies,” they’re called) in a game that comes near the end of the documentary.

Shiloh’s perks include the martial arts instructor on its staff, which probably even makes sense on a certain level yet can’t help being part and parcel with an absurd but now familiar culture where high-school players are being handicapped on ESPN and high school games are being televised. I’ve been thinking some about the recent death of a favored defensive end from my childhood — the Giants’ Andy Robustelli — and trying to conjure up an image of him in one of those white Taekwondo robes making the moves. I just can’t do it. I also like the dad who’s the CEO of a Fortune 500 company but would really like his hard-practicing son to get a football scholarship just to prove a point. (Just which poor kid would you like to see deprived of his chance?)

High school players take more hits than college players while (again) their brains are still developing. Doctors are starting to see brain injuries and memory loss identified with NFL retirees in youngsters. Some of those afflicted have not a specific catastrophic injury but appear to be victims of repetitive hits over a period of time. Sure, one program may be able to afford a martial arts instructor, but many can’t afford trainers due to budget cuts and because no one is mandating they be hired. Countless fans, however, mandate that the coach win in their respective communities — and a coach who loses too many games will be back devoting his time exclusively to teaching driver’s training.

This is a very powerful documentary in the low-key “Frontline” style that simply asks that football programs and the public at large keep pace with the current medical knowledge. A good start might be with semantics. In the old days (as someone notes here), we used to talk of a young player “getting his bell rung.” Now, there’s a better word for it: concussion.

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