Title: Head Games
Director: Steve James
There may not be a more important documentary released this year for the general health of especially sports-playing American kids than “Head Games,” director Steve James’ impactful look at the trauma inflicted by repeated concussions. Using Chris Nowinski’s November 2006 book of the same name as a leaping-off point, the film digs into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE) and its long-term links to memory loss, early-onset dementia, depression and even suicide.
Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, knows of what he writes and speaks. After his professional wrestling career was cut short from the lingering after-effects concussion, he went on to research and write his exhaustively footnoted book, and eventually c0-found the Sports Legacy Institute with Dr. Robert Cantu, in reaction to a new crop of medical research showing brain trauma to be both a latent and booming public health crisis. Nowinski was at the forefront of some of this research, too, convincing the families of a handful of recently deceased athletes to donate their brains for scientific study.
Owing to the fact that the NFL is where the story broke and played out, after the 2006 suicide of ex-Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, “Head Games” devotes about the first half of its 91-minute running time to professional football before cycling through progressively less time devoted to NHL hockey and soccer — as funneled through the perspectives of former player Keith Primeau and Olympic medalist Cindy Parlow, respectively — and, essentially, a third act-as-closing argument. Nowinski shares his own experiences, as does his best friend and college teammate, while “New York Times” writer Alan Schwarz walks viewers through the unfolding story from his perspective. “In most other sports the chance of injury is incidental; in football the chance of injury and long-term impact is fundamental,” says sportscaster Bob Costas, one of the movie’s interviewees.
Still, “Head Games” isn’t just a jeremiad or hand-wringing assault on all physical activity, though. While the brutal collisions of football — from its high-speed set pieces like kickoffs to the grind of offensive and defensive line trench warfare, where not long ago head-smacking was allowed — get the most attention, James (“Hoop Dreams”) uses the articulate Nowinski and others to sketch out a timeline of changing dynamics, and how research can hopefully be used to foster better concussion diagnosis, and perhaps even develop better equipment. Smartly, the director doesn’t overload his movie with voices; the doctors number no more than a half dozen, and this tightened focus benefits the material.
The first-person testimonials of the aforementioned ex-athletes carry a lot of significance as well, and give the movie sympathetic heft. Parlow talks about suffering from chronic headaches during her career, and even now always leaving on her car’s GPS guidance system, even on familiar streets. The grander importance of “Head Games” — what makes it a movie that isn’t just about a problem in professional sports — lies in how James also spotlights the competitive drive of various kids playing these sports, often with less equipment and certainly with less medically informed training and supervision than their sports idols. Late in the film, one doctor estimates that around 15 percent of even one-time concussion sufferers endure persistent cognitive dysfunction. Darkly, plenty of viewers might leave “Head Games” wondering if why they can’t find their car in the parking lot has some connection to all those Pop Warner football games years ago.
NOTE: For more information on the movie, visit www.HeadGamesTheFilm.com.
Written by: Brent Simon