THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Head Games may forever change the way you view sports. It certainly changed the way I do. Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) takes on the subject of head trauma. While that may not seem like a natural topic for a movie, the doc – inspired by a book of the same name – is both timely and urgent. This is a work of activism that effectively shows how its subject can affect not only professional athletes, but also those who play sports on an amateur level.
You may recognize Christopher Nowinski. He was a star of the MTV reality series “Tough Enough” and later a wrestler with the WWE. Having been diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, he now works tirelessly to inform the public about head trauma. Interviewed extensively for the film, Nowinski tells us that there is a silent concussion crisis going on in sports. Many athletes, especially football and hockey players, don't realize that they're having concussions, and therefore the problem goes under-reported. According to his colleague, Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University, any time an athlete sees stars, feels woozy after getting hit/tackled, or blacks out, it's technically a concussion. Of course, most jocks choose to “walk off” such injuries and get back in the game. The team at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, led by Cantu and Nowinski, has discovered that repeated concussions physically change the brain, leading to longer-term problems, including memory loss, depression, and premature death.
Head Games offers up case studies of several former pro athletes who suffer from post-concussion syndrome. NHL All-Star Keith Primeau found his career ended after a concussion; he unknowingly experienced many more during the collisions and fights he had on the ice. These repeated injuries eventually led to depression and irritability. Former Olympic soccer player Cindy Parlow Cone, meanwhile, got her concussions from running into other players and using her head to hit the ball. Those injuries ultimately caused substantial memory impairment. She now uses a GPS whenever she's in the car, even when traveling roads she knows extremely well. The film also looks at several football players, including former Penn football captain Owen Thomas, who inexplicably committed suicide. Cantu and Nowinski were able to study their brains, only to discover devastating trauma within.
As you might expect, the results of research done by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy didn't always sit well with organizations like the NFL. Big money is at stake, for players, owners, and leagues. Important changes were eventually made when the evidence became too damning to ignore, but concussions still occur.
The case studies presented in Head Games are gripping. What James really wants to drive home, however, is that the impact of post-concussion syndrome goes beyond professional sports. Millions of American children participate in sports programs every year, meaning that they too are at risk. The point is made by Dr. Cantu that child/adolescent athletes look to their professional counterparts as examples. They will play their sports in the same manner in which they see those sports being played, i.e. aggressively. They will walk off their injuries if they see their idols doing the same. Precautions must be taken to protect them. Part of Nowinski's mission – and the movie's, as well - is to advocate for such precautions, so that young people won't be subjected to severe problems later in life.
Often more than a little frightening, Head Games packs a lot of information into its 96-minute running time. Best of all, it backs up its message with evidence. This is not another the sky is falling! documentary designed to give you something else to worry about. Post-concussion syndrome is a very real threat to anyone who partakes in sports. Steve James has made an important film that every athlete – or parent of an athlete – should see.
( 1/2 out of four)
Note: Head Games is simultaneously in theaters and on VOD. Look for it on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and other video-on-demand platforms.
Head Games is rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving sports violence and injuries. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!