Mark Reviews Movies

Head Games


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steve James

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements involving sports violence and injuries)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 9/21/12 (limited); 9/28/12 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 27, 2012

Journalist Alan Schwarz sums up the problem quite succinctly near the start of Head Games: "It's been known for a long time that banging your head over and over and over and over again can be a bad thing." Don't tell that to powers that be in the various professional sports leagues, who for decades took a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to concussions. Millions of people watching on television could see a player showing obvious signs of a concussion, but members of the team's staff were too busy with other injuries to notice.

Steve James' documentary about the prevalence of mild traumatic brain injuries in sports like football, hockey, and soccer gives us the testimony of medical experts on both sides. While an independent research team at Boston University provides unassailable evidence of severe damage to the brains of professional football players, the doctors and representatives of the National Football League offer their own study. The only problem is that the league's research only includes active players. If a player were to retire because of multiple concussions, he would not be included.

The independent medical experts, on the other hand, spend their time procuring and dissecting the brains of deceased professional football players. The science on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is in such early stages that there is no way as of yet to determine the disease in a living subject, so players or their families donate that mysterious organ in the hope that it might help others and, for the latter, explain why the person they knew and loved seemed to be an entirely different person later in life.

There's a heartbreaking phone conversation with the wife of a boxer. As the doctor goes over the fighter's case study, we learn just how awful the long-term results of repeated brain injuries might be—from the man almost suffocating his son over a misunderstanding to him committing suicide in front of his wife. She is relieved that she could do nothing to help her husband; more to the point, though, she feels guilt that she got angry at him.

As we know, the rules in football and, to an extent, hockey have been modified to better care for their players, but the road to that change was a long and frustrating one. There is some logic on the part of the leagues here: If, as an independent study shows, half of the players have experienced some symptom of a concussion and, in order to protect them, the league must insist that those players sit out part or all of a game (or multiple games), there would come a point where there were no players left to play.

It's simple math. They understand this, but they don't seem to understand how the percentage of retired players suffering from dementia is far higher than the rest of the population. The reason they understand one but cannot or will not accept the other is the same: Both could have devastating effects on their business. It's amazing with what ease common sense can be tossed aside when the bottom line is at risk.

It would be easy to paint the professional sports leagues as villains, but James avoids that. His choice of subjects is key to that outlook. At the film's center is Chris Nowinski, a former professional wrestler and, before that, college football player at Harvard. He wrote a book about a "concussion crisis" in the NFL, which was basically ignored by them until one of Schwarz' articles about the suicide of a former professional footballer made the front page of the New York Times. Nowinski is brash in talking about the subject, but that quality comes from his passion—his awareness that this topic must be discussed in a public forum. When he meets with a small group of retired football players, he opens by saying that he wants their brains for research when the time comes.

Doctors explain the severity of a concussion, and James accompanies the description with a detailed computer graphic of the permanent injury that can result. We see doctors dissecting brains and the obvious signs of nerve damage. The visual evidence is impossible to ignore.

Willful ignorance of the subject, though, seems to be a common thread. At a high school, Nowinski is met with skepticism and an accusation of merely spreading fear. The coach of the school's football team scheduled a mandatory practice for his players during Nowinski's speech, lest they have second thoughts about playing. Nowinski is rightly outraged by the episode.

If the film has an opinion on the matter, it seems to be that one's decision about whether or not to play contact sports is his or her own, as long as one knows the risks and those in charge are responsible about head injuries. It becomes trickier when children are involved. We meet teenage players who have already suffered multiple concussions. Veteran sports journalist Bob Costas reminds us that kids imitate their heroes; the result is a much more violent form of children's sports (In certain areas, as one parents says, the alternative, sadly, could be worse). Children, a doctor reminds us, are not smaller versions of adults.

Head Games presents a lot over which to mull, especially for parents whose children play or are considering playing a contact sport. James is primarily concerned about bringing awareness, and he does so with an intelligent presentation of the best data available and genuine concern.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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