In the documentary feature Head Games, former WWE wrestler and Harvard football player Christopher Nowinski says that playing his beloved sports was the "closest thing to being a warrior without having to go to war."
Little did he know that the concussions he received all those years that led to his forced retirement would set him on a journey that often times felt like a war -- war against an industry that refused to take concussions seriously and a battle against his own body, which is beginning to fail him because of those concussions.
His story and that of others is what makes Head Games such an interesting, informative documentary, and a must-see for anyone who has ever played sports or whose children are currently playing sports.
Directed by Steve James, who directed Oscar nominated documentary Hoop Dreams, the film explores what is considered the silent concussion crisis in American sports -- professional and amateur -- because often-times the issue is not taken seriously or is brushed aside in the name of winning and being a team player.
The documentary is based on Nowinski's 2006 book of the same name. But whereas the book only encompassed concussions in football because it was the sport the author was familiar with, the documentary branches out to include other sports as well, including hockey, soccer and lacrosse. Former sports players such as the NHL's Keith Primeau, the NFL's Isaiah Kacyvenski and Olympian soccer player Cindy Parlow Cone are among the athletes sharing their struggles with concussions.
Additionally, sports journalists like Bob Costas, Pulitzer-Prize nominated New York Times Reporter Alan Schwarz and several MDs and sports executives also weigh in.
The film links the suicide of numerous sports players -- including former Philadelphia Eagles player Andre Waters and a 21-year old University of Pennsylvania student -- to a degenerative brain disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopaty (CTE) that stems from concussions.
The film does a great job of using graphics to show exactly how a concussion is caused, what it looks like and what it does. It also shows the awkward task that Nowinski has -- as co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University -- of calling up deceased athletes' families and as asking if they could donate their loved one's brain to research CTE.
Bill Daly, NHL Deputy Commissioner and Chief Legal Officer, says in the film that "as long as we continue to play hockey, there's going to continue to be head injuries, there's going to continue to be brain injuries. It doesn't make players want to stop playing and it certainly doesn't make fans stop watching the game."
He may be right, but the film also points out that knowing what we know about concussions, strict rules and guidelines preventing them should be mandatory and enforced. And that's what Nowinski and other advocates in the film are fighting for.
Yet many are still slow to accept concussions being dangerous in the long-term. The most jaw-dropping scene involves Nowinski giving a talk at a high school about the effects of concussions. The school's football coach had the audacity to schedule a mandatory weight lifting session to make sure his players couldn't attend the symposium. Meanwhile the school's athletic trainer verbally attacks Nowinski for "scaring" all the parents. In a complete show of ignorance, the trainer admits to firmly believing that his own 10-year-old daughter, who plays soccer and complains of headaches after heading the ball, is not exhibiting symptoms of a concussion, but that it's all just "part of the game."
It is important to note that the documentary is not anti-sports. Those involved in concussion advocacy clearly have a love of the game, along with the camaraderie, the discipline and the friendships they've gotten from it. However a pastime that is so much a part of Americans' lives from the time they are born also has side effects that are much more serious than previously thought. Those in positions of power should not try to sweep this issue under the rug in the name of championship wins, medals, money and glory. Instead, they need to use their authority to effect change, so that future players are protected properly. And those involved in the making of Head Games are doing just that.
Head Games, released through distributor Variance Film, opened in NY and LA in September. It expands nationally this month. The film is 91 minutes long.