Home » Head Games Movie Review: Not The Film I Was Hoping To See

Head Games Movie Review: Not The Film I Was Hoping To See

Reviewing Head Games, the sports concussion docudrama from director Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame, proved to be a tough assignment.

Each time I watched the movie, first at a "premiere red carpet" sneak preview in Boston back in June 2012, and twice again on DVD in the fall of 2012, I tried to put myself in the position of the average viewer; not only to put to one side the deep knowledge I have of the film's subject as a result of covering concussions in youth sports for MomsTEAM for the past twelve years (now 14 years), but also my professional relationships with three of the film's principals, Chris Nowinski, former Harvard College football player, ex entertainment wrestler, and concussion educator and advocate, neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, MD, and Executive Producer, Steve Devick.

Three young football players on the sideline

Ultimately, I concluded that it was an exercise in futility. I am simply just too close to the subject to be an objective, disinterested observer. Indeed, I realized that I would actually be doing readers of MomsTEAM a disservice if I did not review Head Games through the lens of my own knowledge and experience.

So, what then, did I think of the movie?

Unfortunately, I came away from each viewing of the movie more disappointed than the last.

Perhaps it is because I am a born-and-bred New Englander who values straight talk, and who relies on Yankee ingenuity and a can-do attitude to find solutions to the many challenges youth sports parents face on a daily basis, but Head Games was not the solution-driven movie, and hence not the documentary, I was hoping it would be.

I was hoping for a movie that didn't use - as countless other books and television documentaries had already done (and, with the release in October 2013 of PBS Frontline's "League of Denial" have done since) - the suicides of former NFL players Andre Waters and Mike Webster, and University of Pennsylvania football captain Owen Thomas, and the autopsies of their brains that showed them to have been afflicted with a devastating degenerative neurological disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), to strongly suggest that all athletes who play contact or collision sports for any length of time, whether or not they have ever been diagnosed with a concussion, are at significant risk of developing CTE.  [For an article by MomsTEAM Senior Editor, Lindsey Barton, exploring the question of whether the media has been ahead of the science on CTE, click here.]

I was hoping for a movie that would do more than bash the National Football League, yet again, for the way it failed to address the issue of concussions for so many years, although I don't begrudge Mr. Nowinski and New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz (listed as an Associate Producer of the movie) the right to take at least partial credit for being the "Davids" trying to fell the NFL's "Goliath."  Again, this is a theme that is, of course, front and center in Frontline's "League of Denial," with Messrs. Nowinski and Schwarz featuring prominently.  

I was hoping for a movie that did more than explain, for the umpteenth time, that the reason such a small percentage of the concussions athletes suffer actually end up being reported and, more importantly, treated, is that the culture of contact and collision sports, from Pee Wee to the pros, tells athletes to keep quiet, to play through concussion symptoms, and to return to play before their brains have been given a chance to fully heal, all because they are "warriors" needed on the field of battle. I was hoping for a movie that would explain how, instead of changing the culture - which, I submit, is never going to happen, the solution may be to work around the problem altogether, by using technology to help identify concussed athletes instead of waiting in vain for them to begin honestly self-reporting their symptoms or relying on the ability of sideline personnel to spot signs that an athlete is concussed.  I came away disappointed.

I was hoping for a movie that talked about the steps that are already being taken to reduce the number of concussions in youth sports, such as through education and teaching kids how to tackle without using their heads, or eliminating checking in youth hockey until age 13. I came away disappointed.

I was hoping for a movie that recognized that meeting the challenges concussions pose requires every stakeholder in youth sports to work together, whether it be parents, coaches, educators and reform advocates like Mr. Nowinski and myself, the national governing bodies of sports, or the doctors, athletic trainers, and neuropsychologists charged with the responsibility of identifying and treating concussed athletes and either clearing them to return to play or advising them to retire.  I came away disappointed.

I was hoping for a movie that did more than instill fear in the minds of parents, and ask them, as one recent tweet from the Sports Legacy Institute put it, to "freak out about head injuries in sports," but offered solutions - of which there are plenty, by the way - and hope that there is a way forward. I came away disappointed.  

I was hoping for a movie that didn't have parents leaving the theater thinking that they had essentially only two choices: either not allow their kids to play contact or collision sports at all (as Mr. Nowinski advocates), or, at the very least, not until high school (as Dr. Cantu recommends), or choose to play a dangerous game of "Russian roulette" with their kids' future, as Mr. Nowinski so colorfully put it, by letting them play contact or collision sports in the face of what Head Games would have them believe were very high odds that they would end up, sooner or later, with permanent brain damage at the very least, or, worst case, developing CTE, losing their memory, and ultimately developing early dementia or committing suicide. I came away disappointed.

What I came away feeling is that Head Games is, instead, is a slick, powerful, well-produced movie, boasting superb cinematography, editing and music (kudos to Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame), directed by a master story-teller and agent provocateur (James); a movie clearly intended to evoke in viewers an emotional response, not a rational one; and a movie which is likely to leave many of us who are working hard to meet the concussion challenge in order to make youth sports safer feeling like we had just watched a 90-minute infomercial for Chris Nowinski, the Sports Legacy Institute and the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Instead of charting a way forward, instead of advancing the message that, because there is so much about head trauma that we don't know, the most reasonable approach at this point is to post a yellow "Proceed with Caution" sign while we do what we can to reduce the exposure of young athletes to head trauma and redouble our efforts in concussion protection and risk management, education, research, product development, and treatment, the movie just tries to scare the daylights about of people.

My fear is that the audience Head Games is trying to reach - the parents, coaches, and players who haven't been following the concussion issue all that closely up to now - will come away thinking instead that the road sign that has been posted in front of them is a huge red "Stop" sign.