Sports concussions are no longer considered merely “part of the game.”  More research is being done into the long term, permanent damage that can be caused on the playing field. Filmmaker Steve James, who in 1994 directed, produced, and co-edited the award-winning Hoop Dreams, takes on the concussion issue in his latest documentary, Head Games.  The new film is based on the book of the same name by Chris Nowinski, a former football player and professional wrestler whose personal history of concussions led him to create the Sports Legacy Institute.  Nowinski is also co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine.  Bill Littlefield interviews James and Nowinski for this week’s Only A Game.

Bill’s thoughts on Head Games:

It would be naïve to suggest that every parent ought to attempt to prevent his or her children from playing sports that might result in brain injuries.

It is perhaps less naïve to suggest that parents should have some knowledge of the dangers associated such sports, and there is no better way for parents, coaches, and everybody else to acquire that knowledge than to watch Head Games. This documentary, directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame, is compelling for a number of reasons. It includes a test administered to an ex-NFL player in his forties who can no longer recite the months of the year. It includes the testimony of a former professional soccer player whose parents misunderstood her debilitating, concussion-related symptoms so completely that they could not comprehend her decision to quit playing.

Chris Nowinski, left, and filmmaker Steve James talk with Bill Littlefield about the new documentary Head Games, about concussions in sports. (Alex Kingsbury/Only A Game)

Head Games is based in part on the work of Chris Nowinski, the former football player and pro wrestler who has been educating not only athletes, parents, and coaches but also the NFL, the NHL, and the U.S. Congress on head injuries and brain damage for years. The film includes a scene in which Nowinski suffers a concussion during a WWE match, the result of which is that he forgets what he is supposed to do next in the ring. His wrestling career ended shortly thereafter, but not before many of his fellow wrestlers had accused him of soaking WWE for money by failing to perform. They didn’t understand that on some days, his concussion symptoms were so severe that he could barely keep his eyes open, let alone wrestle.

One of the documentary’s more chilling scenes finds Chris Nowinski addressing very few people in a high school auditorium about how athletes damage their brains and how coaches frequently fail to treat the injuries appropriately. Nowinski learns that the crowd is small in part because the school’s football coach has scheduled a mandatory weight room session so that the players will not be able to hear what Nowinski has to say. The school’s athletic director accuses Nowinski of trying to scare people and says he doesn’t worry when his own soccer-playing daughter complains of headaches and dizziness, because it’s all part of the game.

Nowinski agrees with those who say sports can be valuable for all sorts of reasons. He also argues that suffering brain damage has never done anybody any good.