Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Head Games: Full Contact Doc

If you ever saw stars after getting your bell rung, than you had a concussion.  If that is the only thing you take away from the latest documentary from Hoop Dreams director Steve James, the participants would probably accept that.  Several medical and athletic experts sound a warning bell about the long term effects of concussions and similar sports-related head trauma throughout the course of James’ Head Games (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Few injuries are as misunderstood and misdiagnosed as concussions.  Chris Nowinski ought to know.  He had dozens, but just shook them off as competitive players are apt to do.  However, you do not just shake off the damage done.  Eventually, it caught up with the former Ivy League football player turned WWE professional wrestler.  Suddenly, he was not okay, but at least he had the presence of mind to seek help from one of the foremost concussion specialists after his backstage collapse.

As a Harvard grad, Nowinski became the perfect public face to raise awareness of the links between concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).  He also became the Center for the Study of CTE’s point person for convincing the bereaved family members of recently deceased athletes to donate their loved ones’ brain tissue in hopes of determining whether they suffered from CTE.

By the typical standards of sports documentaries, Head Games is a major downer, but it is not anti-sport.  Nobody interviewed in the film wants to ban football.  In fact, many confess to being big fans.  Shrewdly, James and Nowinski maintain a wide focus, addressing many sports, including girls’ soccer, arguing young players with an aggressive air game are particularly at risk.

In Nowinski, James has a real ace-in-the-hole for his POV figure.  He is articulate (as Joe Biden might say) and has all the necessary athletic cred.  Frankly, it is rather baffling that the WWE made him a villain, but they just could not get past the Harvard thing.  Like the rest of the experts, Nowinski admits he does not have all the answers, but at least he is trying to help develop CTE treatment protocols.

To James’ great credit, Head Games is a reasoned, well measured documentary, completely shunning sensational alarmism.  His framing device of a “David versus Goliath” inner-city peewee football game also helps put things in prospective.  One mother tells the audience she loves the program, because it keeps her son off the street.  Ultimately, the Head Games experts admit nothing in life is one hundred percent safe.  Tempering genuine alarm with prudent realism, Head Games is a responsible film, recommended for ardent sports enthusiasts when it opens this Friday (9/21) in New York at the AMC Empire.