Tackling Concussion in Sport, Head On

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A documentary that follows football player and wrestler Chris Nowinski's quest to uncover the truth about the consequences of sports related head injuries.
Photo Credit: Variance Films
October 3rd, 2012

Tackling concussion in sport head on

-- Professional sports players are often required to put their bodies on the line for the sake of their team. This is true for a number of sports, with the most common being football, soccer, and hockey. Suffering injuries is part and parcel of any sport and most players naturally accept it as part of the game. However, the human body is susceptible to particular injuries, such as concussions. Head injuries in sport can have a lasting effect on a sports player both on and off the field. In an upcoming documentary titled "Head Games," director Steve James attempts to explore the effects of concussions on the lives of young and upcoming sports players, modern day professionals, and past greats.

"Head Games" is based on a 2006 book of the same name authored by Christopher Nowinski, who also happens to be involved in the documentary version. Director James is known as a pioneer in the documentary genre for his work on the 1994 classic "Hoop Dreams." Throughout "Head Games," James uses real life examples from various coaches, parents, and players about the effects of head injuries in sport. Many of the interviewees are concerned for their or their children's safety when playing sport, and they agree to James' request in the hope of finding out more.

The film begins with a scene from a local football field, with the coach typically yelling at his players to man up. In order to motivate his young team, the coach compares them with David, while the opposing team is thought of as Goliath. However, this can only mean one thing: their helmets are akin to the small stone slung from David's slingshot. However, it is not just in football that the head is used as a weapon to help combat the other team's strengths. In soccer the head is commonly used to knock the ball away from the opposing player. Likewise, in hockey taking a blow to the head while scrapping for the puck with an opponent is considered normal.

In order to emphasize the point, Christopher Nowinski testifies firsthand about what the effects of concussion can do to someone. Nowinski was a linebacker for the Harvard football team and also had a short-lived career as a pro wrestler. However, Nowinski's sports career did not exactly go the way that he had planned. In the film, Nowinski comments that being a football player or a wrestler is the closest thing to being a soldier without actually going to war. Nowinski is articulate in his comments and does not present a pretty picture of the effects of head injuries in sport. Since retiring, Nowinski is now the codirector at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.

Continuing along that theme, Alan Schwarz, a reporter for the New York Times who has been outspoken about this issue before, discusses the official term that describes injury to the brain: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Dr. Ann McKee, a Professor of Neurology and Pathology at the Boston School of Medicine, has studied the effects of CTE extensively. In one scene she talks about how CTE sufferers have an abnormally high number of dead brain cells. Dr. McKee goes on to say that CTE can lead to dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and other related conditions later on in life.

Aside from considerable medical testimony, James interviews a former NHL hockey player, Keith Primeau. Throughout his career, Primeau suffered numerous concussions and was eventually told to quit by one of his team's doctors. Primeau now discourages young hockey players from pursuing the sport because of the potential to suffer severe head trauma.

"Head Games" uses many statistics, real-life testimonies, and experiments to present all the facts for viewers to make up their own minds about the subject. One scene in particular is very disheartening from the point of view of a young football player. An ex-NFL player is examined by a neurologist, who finds that the former football player's memory is so bad that he cannot even remember the months of the year in the right order.

"Head Games" is a must see for any aspiring kid who wants to pursue a career in professional sport. At no point does the documentary discourage people from following their dreams, but it does provide some warning of the negative effects from playing sport at any level. The overriding theme throughout the film is that the brain is a precious organ that must be looked after for the long-term benefit of an individual. "Head Games" may also be interesting for parents who have previously encouraged their kids to pursue their chosen sport without knowing all the consequences.

Tags: Head Games