Head Games (Variance Films, PG-13)

film head-games_75Anyone who has played football has suffered a concussion, whether they were aware of it at the time or not.

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Collisions are inherent in American football, and they’re part of the game’s appeal. It’s exciting to watch big, powerful guys bash into each other, and a well-executed hit makes an excellent addition to any highlight reel. The problem is that the human brain is not designed to absorb repeated impact. Dr. Robert Cantu, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, says point-blank that anyone who has played football has suffered a concussion, whether they were aware of it at the time or not. And yet millions of kids in America play football every year. This conflict is at the heart of Head Games, a hard-hitting (pun intended) new documentary by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters).

James is clearly convinced that concussions in sport, particularly in football, are a serious health risk, and Head Games presents ample evidence to support that point of view. Head Games is not the type of film, in other words, that claims to present both sides of an issue—but to demand such a mechanical balancing of viewpoints would be like expecting a film about lung cancer to grant tobacco executives equal time to claim that smoking really isn’t harmful to your health.

The issue of concussions in football gained wide exposure in 2007, when former NFL player Andre Waters committed suicide. A neuropathologist examining his brain declared that Waters, who was 44 at the time of his death, had suffered brain damage such that his brain resembled that of an 85-year-old man or a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Another study, conducted at the University of Michigan, found that retired NFL players ages 30 to 49 were 19 times as likely to have been diagnosed with memory-related diseases as were the American population as a whole.

Statistics are one thing, but seeing the evidence for yourself is another. Gene Atkins, an NFL veteran exhibiting symptoms similar to those shown by Waters before his suicide, allowed himself to be filmed during a neurological consultation. Atkins is a relatively young man (he was born in 1964), yet he struggles to name the months of the year in sequence or to repeat a string of six digits (he can only manage three, even when they are twice recited to him).

Head Games also looks at hockey and soccer, both of which have been implicated in the kind of brain damage that is now associated with football. Keith Primeau, a 16-year NHL veteran, recalls feeling relief upon being told by a trainer, after his fourth concussion, that he would never be cleared to play again. Years later, he still suffers from headaches, visual problems, and mood disturbances. In this section, however, Head Games gets a bit sidetracked by conflating fighting (two guys on skates hanging onto each others’ jerseys and trying to punch each other, usually to no great effect) with illegal hits (e.g., one player leveling another at high speed).

In soccer, James’ key informant is Cindy Parlow Cone, who won two gold medals with the U.S. women’s team. After suffering a concussion on the field, Cone recalls that she would regularly “see stars” after heading the ball, and estimates that she suffered over 100 concussions during her career. She was ultimately forced to retire due to post-concussion syndrome, and now suffers from memory loss so severe that she never leaves home without a GPS because she gets lost so easily.

As Head Games points out, researching the effects of concussions is difficult, because often the damage doesn’t show up for years, and the really conclusive evidence may only be available through an autopsy. As with many health risks, there is no one-to-one correspondence between concussion and neurological disease, any more than every smoker gets lung cancer, and it’s a relatively new field of study, so many questions remain unanswered.

There’s an even greater problem with concussion research, however, which is this: Any evidence of harm from playing sports will inevitably meet with opposition from those who have a vested interest in the sports industry, or who simply love sports and know what a good influence they can be in the life of a young person. It’s chilling to hear an athletic trainer angrily declare that his 10-year-old daughter regularly shows symptoms of concussion during her games, and yet continues to play, with the implication that all this talk about brain injury is alarmist. On a more reasonable level, Keith Primeau continues to coach youth hockey, and allows his kids to play, because he feels the benefits of participation in the sport outweigh the risks. I feel his conflict: I grew up in Nebraska, a football state if ever there was one, and had I been born with Y chromosomes would probably have played the game myself. | Sarah Boslaugh

Head Games is available on Video on Demand and on iTunes; it’s having a limited theatrical release but is not currently slated for a screening in St. Louis. You can read more about the film and watch the trailer at http://www.headgamesthefilm.com/.

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