Dec. 13, 2012
Director Steve James' new documentary Head Games
tackles the subject of sport-related head injuries and their long-term effects. Based at least in part on the book of the same title by Christopher Nowinksi, who plays a significant role in the film, Head Games
is an engaging look at the possible dire consequences of participating in contact sports.
The film opens with several quick shots of collisions in professional sports - not just football and hockey, as you might expect, but also basketball, soccer and even bicycling. There is footage of women's sports as well as men's, and children's as well as adults'. This documentary draws you in immediately. Its focus is on CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a structural brain disease that many athletes suffer from, a disease that has led to several suicides.
Christopher Nowinski is at the center of this film for at least the first half. He was a defensive tackle, a former All-Ivy football player and also a wrestler. He is quite candid about his love for the violence of football. "It's the closest thing to being a warrior without actually having to go to war
," he says. He got into wrestling (through a reality television program, interestingly enough), and sustained a head injury, at which point he forgot what he was doing, forget the script of the match, and consequently put himself into a more dangerous situation.
The first section of the documentary focuses on football, and this is for me the best section of the film. Several doctors are interviewed including Robert Gantu, MD (a clinical professor of neurosurgery) and Douglas Smith, MD (director at the Center for Brain Injury and Repair) who talk about just what constitutes a concussion. They show that in a concussion your brain changes shape very quickly. All of the medical information is presented clearly. I have little background in science, and I was able to follow all of the information.
As interesting as the scientific information is, perhaps even more engaging are some of the interviews with football players and their families. Gene Atkins, a nine-year NFL veteran, had multiple suicide attempts. In the film he visits Robert Gantu, and the footage of Atkins unable to name the months is heartbreaking and frightening. The phone conversation with the wife of a boxer is likewise moving.
The documentary does highlight the changes in the game that were implemented after a report was leaked, linking professional football to dementia. So progress is being made to protect professional football players. The film then loses a little steam when it switches focus to hockey. But the interviews with the players are just as engaging, particularly those with Keith Primeau, a retired hockey player. What's also interesting is the interview with Keith's teenage son, who also plays hockey.
Soon the documentary switches to soccer. One thing that truly surprised me is that female soccer players suffer more concussions than male players. Cindy Parlow Cone, a three-time Olympic medalist, talks about her own memory loss after a head injury (and yes, the footage of the collision is included in the film). What is also interesting is that it is not just professional athletes who suffer from CTE. Owen Thomas, a college football player who committed suicide, never had any documented concussions, and yet when his brain was studied, it was found that he had the disease. The film focuses on younger athletes toward the end.
The footage of Nowinski giving a talk about head injuries is incredible. It will likely infuriate you, especially if you have teenage children playing sports.
By the way, this documentary does not take an anti-sports stance. I enjoy watching football and soccer, and I will continue to enjoy those sports after watching this film. And interestingly, most of the folks interviewed feel the same way. After all, Keith Primeau's son plays hockey, and Keith is nothing but supportive and encouraging. Other parents who are interviewed seem to have no intention of stopping their children from participating in sports even after those children have suffered some head injuries.
Director Steve James is best known for his 1994 film Hoop Dreams
. He has directed several other films, including Reel Paradise
(2005) and The Interrupters