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Review - Steve James' 'Head Games' Is A Cautionary Tale For Athletes

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by Tambay A. Obenson
September 19, 2012 7:28 PM
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After directing 2 of the most reverred documentaries made in the last 20 years (you'll likely find both of them on many lists of top documentaries of all time - 1994's Hoop Dreams and 2011's The Interrupters), director Steve James tackles what he refers to as the "concussion crisis in sports," in his new revealing feature documentary, Head Games.

Produced by Bruce Sheridan, and inspired by the 2006 book by Christopher Nowinski of the same name, in Head Games, athletes and parents share their personal struggles in dealing with concussions, from the professional to youth levels. It takes a deeper look at the devastating and long-term effects of concussions in all sports, and offers eye-opening insight and presents supporting cutting-edge science evidence on head trauma from leading medical experts.

Consider it a cautionary tale, a call to action, an attempt to scare or frighten; it's all of those and more, and its contents shouldn't at all be taken lightly.

I played football in high school, although I wasn't particularly great at the sport. But for the time that I played I took my share of hits (or licks, as we called them) - some of them were helmet to helmet, whether during practice, or a live game against a real opponent on Friday nights.

And at the time, no thought was given to how these hits to the head might affect my physical and mental health, or of the other players - especially those who were superstars, who played far more than I did, and who took far more hits to the head than I ever would. 

I'm not in touch with most of those guys today, many years later, so I can't say if any of them went on to experience any of the potentially fatal symptoms described in James' documentary; a few of them went on to play football in college; and even fewer made it to the NFL, playing at the highest level, as the competition from stage to stage (high school to college, to the NFL) got increasingly more challenging, as boys became men, larger, stronger, faster, receiving and delivering hit after hit, after hit, after hit; some to the body, some to the head; and in some cases, causing severe, career-ending fatalities.

But it's all part of the game we thought; I'm a football fan, and you'll find me glued to my TV on Saturdays for the college games, and on Sundays for the pros. It's a man's game, we think; you're either tough or you don't play. A hit's a hit; you take it, get up, dust yourself off, and get ready for the next play. That's what we were taught. 

Just as they say there's no crying in basebal, there's no crying in football either; or boxing, or Hockey, or soccer, or any sport in which the human head is most exposed to risk.

However, as Head Games argues, while there may be no crying in these physical sports, there certainly is enough evidence to suggest that these repeated blows to the head, even when protected with a helmet or padding, can have negative life-altering short and long term effects on the athletes, like brain damage (the brain, after all, is the most complex organ in the human body, the center of the nervous system that coordinates all our actions, transmitting signals between different parts of the body); damage that could lead to a wealth of other ailments - some even deadly.

The film pulls no punches, as it probably shouldn't, given the severity of its subject matter. It doesn't dance around the issue, or package it within some heartwarming narrative to make it an easier pill to swallow. It's really just basic reporting; it presents the facts, engaging the subjects - the athletes, their families, coaches, doctors, scientists, government officials, sports commissioners, policy makers, and others - to ensure that the audience walks away with a sound understanding of the problem it highlights in its 100-minute running time.

The argument is made, and supported with data. So you either heed the warning, or you ignore it. It's really up to the viewer - especially if you're an athlete, or have family, friends, etc who are athletes in any of the aforementioned sports (and others).

I doubt that the film will have some radical impact on the nature of these games (this is a topic that's come up in the past, and been addressed at the highest levels of sports organizations and government, and there has been some change over the years, via new rules implemented in some of these sports, with regards to how, where, and what types of hits are legal, and not); but I'm sure it'll have its intended effect on some viewers, who will consider making some life adjustments - whether for themselves, or their families (children especially).

It'll be hard to ignore the evidence; at least, it should inspire further investigation if not entirely convinced.

Variance Films picked up Head Games for a multi-platform release (in theaters, VOD, Digital Download and more), starting this Friday, September 21. Theatrical will be limited, but you'll also be able to find it on iTunes, Facebook, Amazon Video, DirecTV and others. 

Visit the film's site HERE for more info.

Watch the trailer below (poster underneath):

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