It takes just under twenty minutes in Steve James‘ riveting documentary “Head Games” until we see a brain getting sliced open. And while that’s the lone visually queasy moment in the movie, the startling facts and figures presented in the film may still make your stomach churn. Given that the movie the comes from the man behind excellent films like “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters,” it’s no surprise that his latest effort is another comprehensive and focused piece of filmmaking. But everything else about the movie is a true eye-opener, with James zeroing in on one of the most important topics that faces the future of sports and atheletes at all levels, that the industry, players and spectators continue to ignore.
Each week, every fall, millions of Americans crowd around a television set or hit a tailgate party, and tune into the NFL. As the sport has continued to grow over the years and decades, the players have become bigger and they hit harder than they ever have before. It would seem logical that if you have 250-pound players running full throttle and slamming into each other, there are going to be injuries. And while many suffer from pulls, sprains, tears, broken bones and more, a more insidious problem may be lurking beneath their helmet that can’t be seen. While some may call it “taking a ding” or “seeing stars,” the medical term is a concussion. And even one can be damaging enough, but add the number that football and hockey players endure over the course of a career, and you have something called CTE, or Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. And it’s a major issue.
Chris Nowinski is the last guy you would expect to ever be involved in pushing the issue of CTE forward. A former all-Ivy defensive tackle, reality show star and WWE wrestler, it was after one particularly bad concussion at a Main Event match, that his eyes were opened to the damage he had done to his brain over the years. Meeting with specialist Dr. Robert Cantu, he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and as he learned more, he eventually teamed with Cantu and other researchers to begin investigating concussions, CTE and their effects on players in detail. And results were startling. While the NFL’s own, carefully worded and biased study concluded that only 5% of players experienced concussions, once that term was removed from the question and only symptoms were described, the figure jumped to 50%. And while the gap in percentages is certainly attention-grabbing, there’s a larger issue at play.
Players and coaches are not well educated about concussions, it isn’t diagnosed and even if it is, atheletes are not given adequate time to recover. Part of it comes from a combination of competitiveness and machismo – no player wants to be sent off if they are feeling dizzy or briefly seeing double. But what folks don’t connect is that when those symptoms occur, it’s because the brain is in the midst of a severe trauma as vital nerves are damaged. And once that occurs, it’s the start of a gradual spread that can be severely hastened by more hits and contact with the head. The end result? A loss in reflexes, severe changes in personality, memory loss, dementia and more. While science is yet to make a hard connection between concussions and those maladies, the empirical evidence is staggering and simply too persuasive to dismiss.
But how do you change traditions and national love of the game? With CTE showing its face not just in football, but in hockey, soccer and lacrosse, it becomes a discussion of how do you change without losing the core and spirit of the sport? While the NFL has made some strides in player safety, the NHL has perhaps been the most progressive, laying out strong guidelines about acceptable and prohibited hits, handing down severe suspensions for those that break the rules, while also making a conscious effort to educate players. But as “Head Games” reveals, signs of CTE can start emerging even before anyone goes pro. When you have kids who are still growing up, whose brains are still being formed, and then have them smash into each other headfirst each week – damage will certainly occur. But even advocates like hockey veteran Keith Primeau and Dr. Christina Masters, are still wary to pull their kids off the ice, even if they have already suffered concussions. Do you live in fear? Do you sacrifice you child’s happiness for the possibility of what may or may not happen down the line? Can your children trust you to take them out of a game or sport if they can’t decide for themselves? Should they even be deciding for themselves?
“What’s the level of acceptable risk? What’s the level of reasonable reform?” asks broacaster Bob Costas. And that’s really the heart of the issue in “Head Games.” An absolutely potent blend of science, investigative journalism (the anecdotes by New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz are particularly illuminating and entertaining) and first-hand accounts from parents and players, Steven James’ brisk film succeeds because it refuses to be alarmist. Instead, it’s a deeply humane and moving look at a complex issue that at the very least demands that a conversation begins not about short term fixes, but long term solutions. [B+]