Steve James' provocative documentary on concussions in sports, "Head Games," explores the science and indicts the powerful. But his storytelling truly excels when everyday moms, dads and kids reveal their hopes, fears and grief.
A Hampton native, James has long been drawn to sports. "Hoop Dreams," his 1994 release on two Chicago-area basketball players," and "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson," the ESPN project that brought him home to the Peninsula, both earned critical acclaim.
Released last year, "Head Games" is of similar quality. Prompted by recent headlines — the starting quarterbacks at William and Mary, Old Dominion and Maryland sustained concussions on the same day this month — I finally viewed the film this week.
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"Head Games" was inspired by Christopher Nowinski, a former All-Ivy League defensive lineman at Harvard, who wrote a book of the same title. Addicted to the rush of football, he joined World Wrestling Entertainment after graduation and soon discovered that though scripted, WWE's dangers are quite real.
"I loved the violence of it," Nowinski says in the film of football. "It's the closest thing to being a warrior without having to go to war."
Wrestling's repetitive collisions quickly took their toll.
"My head was killing me," Nowinski says. "I … went to a cold, dark place trying to make the throbbing go away."
One year of headaches later, Nowinski concluded: "I just couldn't believe I had gladly exposed myself to repeated concussions."
Nowinski became an advocate for athletes, published his book in 2006 and teamed with Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University to found the Sports Legacy Institute in 2007, all to address the public health crisis of concussions in sports — at all levels.
The clinical term is "chronic traumatic encephalopathy," or CTE. The condition used to be called "dementia pugilistica" because it was often found in boxers.
Nowinski takes up the difficult (ghoulish?) chore of tracking suspicious deaths of former athletes and immediately asking their loved ones if researchers can study their brains. Footage of doctors on a conference call informing a boxer's widow that, yes, the dementia that racked her husband likely was caused by repeated concussions is heartbreaking.
As she hangs up the phone, Dr. Ann McKee puts her head on her desk and sobs.
James also shows Cantu examining Gene Atkins, an often-concussed former NFL player. Atkins can not recite the months of the year in sequence.
There's also the parents of Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football player who committed suicide in 2010 and whose brain autopsy showed unmistakable evidence of CTE. "Head Games" accompanies Tom Thomas, a football player at the University of Virginia in the late 1960s, to his son's grave and shows the young man's mother, Kathy Brearley, replaying the "happy birthday" voice mail Owen left her the day before he hanged himself.
Framing the issue succinctly, sportscaster Bob Costas says to James: "What's the level of acceptable risk? And what's the level of reasonable reform?"
James recounts the 2006 linkage of former NFL player Andre Waters' suicide to repeated head trauma, a story that made the front page of the New York Times. Alan Schwarz, who wrote the Times piece, is the film's most forceful voice, and he recalls a tense interview with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the subject.
Three years later, a University of Michigan study found that former NFL players are 19 times more likely than the general population to experience memory-related brain disorders. Schwarz calls the study "a game-changer."
About midway through viewing "Head Games," I scribbled in my notes, "NFL denial: Like tobacco companies with cigarettes."
Sure enough, later in the film, Rep. Linda Sanchez of California makes that very comparison during congressional hearings on the subject. The NFL and other sports entities since have changed competition rules and medical protocol to hopefully curb concussions and improve treatment.
"Head Games" includes chilling clips from professional football, rugby, soccer, hockey, basketball and cycling. But the crisis of concussions in sports reaches down to the grass roots.
That's where the film finds Keith Primeau, his professional hockey career ended by concussions, coaching his son's team. That's where 14-year-old Chayse Primeau tells James he relishes hockey's contact and chooses to ignore the risks.
"I like it better that way," he says.
The issues and questions raised by "Head Games" should give us all pause. Athletes, fans, parents, coaches.
Even Dr. McKee, on the front line of concussion research, admits to James: "I'm a huge football fan."