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

Distorted picture

What few, if any, of the reviews I have read of the movie recognize is that, as dramatic and powerful as Head Games is, and as much as the director is entitled to present his particular spin on the concussion challenge we face in sports, it ultimately presents in my view, a distorted picture that doesn't fairly reflect just how far we have come over the last decade in our understanding of concussions, the ways in which the number of concussions and catastrophic head injuries can be reduced (e.g., safe tackling, proper helmet fit, strengthening neck muscles), and the important work being done by so many around the country, indeed the world, to make sports safer.

As much as I love to sing the praises of Boston, viewers are left with the impression that it is the undisputed hub of the concussion universe; that the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and the Sports Legacy Institute, Bob Cantu, Chris Nowinski, Ann McKee, and Robert Stern are actually, as the reviewer of the movie in Variety came away from Head Games believing, the "nerve center, so to speak, of concussion research."

In point of fact, as MomsTEAM's Senior Health and Safety Editor Lindsay Barton Straus and I have been reporting for years, outstanding and critically important work in the concussion space is being done all over the country and in Canada, by among others, Steve Broglio at the University of Michigan on the biomechanics of head trauma and its lingering effects, Larry Leverenz and his colleagues at Purdue on the subtle brain trauma sustained by high school football players from repeated subconcussive hits, researchers at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, whose groundbreaking research on head trauma in youth football lead directly to rules being put in place by Pop Warner to limit contact to the head during practices,  Dave Ellemberg at the University of Montreal on a concussion's effect on a teen's short-term memory, the aforementioned Dr. Guskiewicz at the University of North Carolina, by Philip Schatz and my MomsTEAM colleague, Rosemarie Moser on the importance of cognitive and physical rest in concussion recovery, and by Drs. Bennet Omalu and Julian Bailes.

The movie makes only a passing reference to laws now in place in forty of the fifty [now all fifty] states, (which so many, including the NFL, have worked so hard to get enacted) requiring that parents and athletes acknowledge receipt of a concussion education sheet in order for an athlete to participate that season, that athletes suspected of having sustained head trauma be removed immediately from play and not be allowed back in the same game or practice, and that require written authorization from a health care professional with concussion expertise before a concussed athlete is ultimately permitted to return to play (RTP).

While I don't necessarily agree with Mr. Nowinski's characterization of the RTP element of the laws as "being sold as the solution" to the concussion problem in youth sports, I do agree with him that the larger challenge is to do a better job identifying concussed athletes and getting them off the field in the first place. (Which is why, once again, I found it odd that the movie says nothing about hit sensors).

A question of balance

Surprisingly, the movie spends but a few minutes on how concussions are actually treated. Conspicuously absent is any mention of the increasingly common use of baseline and post-concussion computerized neurocognitive testing in the management of concussions, this despite the fact that the most recent international consensus of concussion experts calls it one of the "hallmarks" of concussion management, and studies suggesting that its use may delay the return of athletes who might otherwise be allowed to return to play before they have regained full cognitive function because they self-report no concussion symptoms.

Again, according to Executive Producer, Steve Devick, one of the early rough cuts of Head Games - of which there were apparently at least five - did include a short segment on neurocognitive testing, but Mr. James elected not to include references to any post-concussion testing except for those conducted by Drs. Cantu and Master in their offices. Thus, for all the viewer knows, the only things a doctor does after an athlete suffers a concussion is to test for double vision and balance problems, and ask questions about memory and sleep problems.

I think that the movie, as a result, paints a misleading picture of how multi-faceted and multi-dimensional concussion management has become, by omitting mention of one of the most significant tools in the concussion toolbox.

Black and white

Ultimately, the movie paints the concussion picture largely in black and white terms, as a battle between David (Nowinski, Cantu, Schwarz, et. al) and Goliath (the NFL).  It eschews a nuanced approach which recognizes the inexact state of our current understanding of what causes concussion, what makes some athletes more susceptible to concussion and long-term injury than others, the uncertainty over just how prevalant CTE is in athletes, and a discussion of the steps that are already being taken to make all sports and recreational activities, including such as wheel and snow sports, not just contact and collision sports, safer, improve our ability to identify concussions, and to keep athletes off the field until their brains are fully healed, Head Games opts instead to play with the viewer's emotions, to freak them out, and to scare them.   

In doing that director Steve James has made movie that most reviewers apparently love and that wins accolades - there is even some early Oscar buzz - but, in the end, I think it is the movie that is playing games with our heads.

Brooke de Lench is the Publisher of MomsTEAM and the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (Harper Collins), and the producer/director of the new PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer"

To visit MomsTEAM's comprehensive Concussion Safety Center, click here.

Concussion Book Reviews:

Kids, Sports, and Concussion - A Guide for Coaches and Parents  by William P. Meehan, III, M.D. (Praeger 2011) 

Ahead of the Game: The Parents' Guide to Youth Sports Concussion by Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, Ph.D. (University Press of New England 2012) 

The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic by Linda Carroll and David Rosner (Simon & Schuster 2011).

Throwaway Players: The Concussion Crisis From Pee Wee Football to the NFL by Gay Culverhouse (Behler Publications 2011) 

Concussions and Our Kids: America's Leading Expert on How to Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe by Robert C. Cantu, M.D. and Mark Hyman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012)

Originally posted October 1, 2012, revised June 3, 2014