Although it wasn’t a contender for last night’s Academy Awards, there’s a powerful new film out this week that you may want to see. It’s the sports documentary, Head Games: The Global Concussion Crisis, and it provides a human face to the seemingly endless stream of high-profile reports linking repetitive head trauma to degenerative brain disease.
Early in the film, we meet Christopher Nowinski, who confesses that he once “loved the violence” of football. “It’s the closest thing to being a warrior without actually having to go to war,” says Nowinski, a former Harvard football defensive lineman turned pro-wrestler. But not long after that, we see him lying on a cold concrete floor, clutching his head after what would turn out to be a career-ending concussion he sustained during a wrestling match in 2003.
As Nowinski continued to experience headaches, memory problems and sleepwalking for the next year, he decided to see Boston University School of Medicine concussion expert Robert Cantu, who asked Nowinski how often he saw stars or felt woozy after being hit in the wrestling ring or on the football field. “All the time,” Nowinski recalls sheepishly, dumbfounded that he had likely been experiencing regular concussions but had never before given much thought to the potential long-term consequences of such injuries.
That experience led Nowinski on a crusade to better understand his condition, and in 2006 he published the book, “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis,” which inspired the documentary from director Steve James (who also gave us the 1994 Oscar-nominated documentary, Hoop Dreams). But whereas Nowinski’s book largely focused on the brain hazards associated with professional and amateur football, the new film makes painfully clear that all athletes who engage in contact sports—be it hockey, rugby, soccer or any of a variety of games—are potentially at risk.
Demonstrating the damage
Through interviews with physicians, the film lays out the current understanding of sports-related brain injury. For example, University of Pennsylvania neurosurgeon Doug Smith alternately stretches and snaps a piece of pink putty to illustrate the mechanics of concussion-induced brain damage at the neuronal level. Ann McKee, a neuroscientist at Boston University School of Medicine, uses a series of stained brain tissue slices from former NFL players to show the abnormal accumulation of certain proteins and neuronal loss associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease first observed in the brains of boxers.
The film also features disturbing interviews with athletes, many of whom casually shrug off the risks, and a few others who share their struggles. These individuals include a retired NFL player who cannot remember the order of the months of the year, an Australian football player who fails to remember the location of his honeymoon and a former female soccer star who frequently used her head to score goals and now uses a GPS device even when driving in her own neighborhood because she has difficulties remembering locations.
By the end, the film borders on feeling almost as repetitive as the injuries the filmmakers seek to raise awareness about. Although it firmly establishes that the head trauma sustained during sport are a global concern that athletes—and the general public—need to take seriously, it offers little in the form of answers to important questions, such as how best to detect and prevent concussion, whether parents should let their children participate in contact sports and how many concussions might be too many. But that’s in part because, as the film points out, the scientific and clinical understanding of sports-related head trauma and CTE lags woefully behind public interest. So it looks like the ball is now in science’s court to provide some answers to these and other lingering questions.
Head Games will be available for digital rental by the end of this week through the website headgamesthefilm.com. You can watch the trailer below.