Saturday, October 13, 2012

We Can't Just Shake It Off Anymore



HEAD GAMES

It's ingrained into every male who has played contact sports: it's a brutal yet beautiful thing.  As adults, we should know that there will be injuries, including concussions, when we see large bodies colliding against other large bodies, especially when both are in motion.  Head Games, the latest film from documentarian Steve James, explores the repercussions of concussions on sports (particularly football) and how for far too long players from schools to the NFL have either ignored or dismissed the real dangers of head injuries, sometimes with tragic and sadly avoidable results.

Chris Nowinski is our unofficial guide through Head Games.  His in an interesting story: a football player for Harvard, he didn't go into the National Football League but into pro wrestling, going through the rigors of training for WWE as part of the Tough Enough reality show (which showcased how the WWE got new personalities to join the elites of wrestling.  As "Chris Harvard", his schtick was to belittle the intelligence of both his opponents and the fans by constantly reminding us of his Ivy League education.  Nowinski tells us though, that at one match, he got such a strong concussion he literally didn't know what to do.  After stumbling out of the arena (which, by the way, should dispel the idea that wrestling is 'fake': the matches may be fixed in that the outcome is already known, but the injuries the wrestlers get are very real), he lay on the concrete in agonizing pain, and it was so bad that he retired from WWE.

After that, with his education to help him, Nowinski began to examine and explore the percentage of not only concussions within the NFL but also in how it impacted retired players' lives.  The NFL, especially the higher-ups, and apparently fans dismissed Nowinski's concerns, even after the book Head Games was published, and perhaps even after the rash of early deaths of former pros with signs of dementia, Alzheimer's, and mentally unstable behavior uncharacteristic of how they were before they left the league.

Head Games covers the science behind concussions, especially with what is termed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE): repeated injuries to the brain that have long-lasting effects. We also get some truly tragic stories, such as that of Owen Thomas, a Penn State player who committed suicide due to the damage his brain suffered as result of repeated concussions that affected the section with impulse control.  Head Games also touches on both how the NFL at first appeared dismissive of CTE but was forced into action (though it kept bungling the job) as well as concussions in other sports such as hockey and girl's soccer (yes, girls do get concussions too).

Intercut with all the medical examinations and investigations is a football game with small children.  The intention is clear: the next generation is facing great danger if no action is taken.

Head Games lays out its case of the dangers of concussions in sports, but what I did not get was both how to minimize the danger (apart from simply not playing) or on how to separate the dangers from the reality of playing sports.  I didn't play many sports (I am the original Last Boy Picked), but I recognize that sports, in particular football, there is always going to be risk.  I don't think James would suggest that people not play any sports, but I also don't think Head Games offered many solutions apart from offering to restrict football to those over 14 and limiting full-contact practices at the high school level.

One thing about Head Games that IS positive is that it goes through all the science without making things complicated.  We never get lost in the technical jargon and the case that Nowinski and James build, not just about the dangers of concussions or about the dangers of dismissing concussions but also about how officials were and sometimes still are unwilling to recognize there is a problem.  The reluctance the NFL to tackle (no pun intended) the concussion problem is shown in contrast to how the National Hockey League appears to be making progress (though one wonders if the encouragement of fighting has been helpful).

Curiously, the NFL still appears to belittle the problem: the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal shows that the players at least still don't think "a little headache" will kill them.  Sadly, it can.

In short, Head Games explores something most fans don't want to recognize: those head crunches we cheer on are more harmful than we fail to recognize.   

I can't put it in clearer terms: if you love sports, in particular football, you must see Head Games

Owen Thomas
1989-2010


DECISION: B+

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