‘Head Games’ Forces Viewers to Confront Concussions in Sport
Christina Master is a pediatrician and sports medicine specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and fully understands the dangers concussions pose to athletes of all ages.
Master knows that some doctors insist that one concussion is one too many. Research shows that 15% of people who have a single concussion suffer long-term, persistent cognitive problems.
Asked point blank why she allows her oldest son, Nathan, to play hockey when he has already suffered three diagnosed concussions and the mother and physician struggles to answer. She admits she may regret her decision in the future. So, why risk it?
“Because he loves playing hockey,” she says. “We love that he loves playing hockey. We love watching him play hockey.”
Throughout the documentary, “Head Games,” asks the tough questions and delivers the tough answers on concussions in sports. Director Steve James presents a fair, balanced and in-depth look at a major national public health issue that allows each viewer to make up their own minds. The acclaimed filmmaker, who also directed “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters,” does this by telling compelling, real-life stories and presenting the cutting-edge science in simple, clear language.
Variance Films announced it plans to release the documentary, which is inspired by the book, “Head Games,” written by former Harvard football star and WWE wrestler Christopher Nowinski, on Sept. 21 in select cities and then will expand to top markets in October. Plans call for select screenings to feature guest speakers and panel discussions.
In addition, filmgoers have the opportunity to bring, “Head Games,” to their local movie theaters through Tugg, a web-based platform that empowers individuals to select a film, screening time, and nearby theater and spread the word to their online community. Once a necessary amount of people commit to attending, Tugg will reserve the theater and ensure the delivery of the movie. Also, people can choose to rent it for $6.99 off of Facebook and will have 48 hours to watch it.
The 91-minute documentary traces the concussion story back to when Nowinski first suffered a debilitating concussion as a professional wrestler, began researching and writing his book on the issue and then shared it with New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz in 2004.
“I couldn’t believe I had been gladly exposing myself to concussions for 19 years and this was my first discussion that I was hearing about it,” Nowinski says when he goes to see Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading expert on concussions and their long-term effects.
Like a mystery movie, the documentary chronicles the study and research done by the Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), taking viewers inside a morgue where Dr. Ann McKee is slicing donated brains of athletes and explaining “structural brain disease.” The lab found CTE in 14 of the first 15 brains from athletes in contact sports that it analyzed. CTE is a progressive degenerative disease, diagnosed post-mortem in individuals with a history of multiple concussions and other forms of head injury.
Interwoven throughout are interviews with athletes suffering the consequences of one too many jars to the head, such as Keith Primeau, a 16-year-veteran of the NHL, and Cindy Parlow Cone, a three-time Olympic soccer player. The film also interviews award-winning sports journalist Bob Costas, NFL and NHL officials, youth athletes and their parents, and leading physicians and scientists on concussions.
In one memorable scene, former Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints defensive back Gene Atkins undergoes an evaluation by Cantu and fails to countdown from the number nine or recite the first six months of the year. Atkins, who suffers CTE symptoms, tells the camera: “I understand how it feels to want to take your life. It’s a scary feeling. Every day I wake up is a challenge for me. I’m just a mess right now.”
The film admits that more science is needed to immediately diagnose brain damage from head trauma, figure out risk factors and find a possible cure.
Another admission: the public education and cultural battle necessary to make a variety of contact sports safer for athletes of all ages in an effort to protect their brains may be a bigger challenge than the one to convince people that smoking may cause cancer.
Says James, the film director, in a press release: “This is a film that I hope reaches a broad audience and, in particular, amateur athletes and their families, who really need to become better informed on this huge public health issue.”
Given that 1 in 8 boys have begun playing football this season, all athletes, parents and coaches should watch, “Head Games,” and ask each other: “How much are you willing to risk to play a game?”
Duwayne Escobedo is the United States Sports Academy Director of Communications. Besides his work in public relations and marketing, he has also served as a journalist for various newspapers during his 20-year career.