Newsflash: getting hit repeatedly in the head, whether or not you’re wearing a helmet or protective gear, is bad for your health. Furthermore, you can still get a concussion and more than 3-4 of them can have long-term effects. There you go. Now you really don’t need to see “Head Games,” the latest film by master documentarian Steve James which is based on the book of the same name.
I don’t mean to be a dismissive jerk about it but honestly, after 90 minutes or so of brain experts, former athletes and various icons of the sports community belaboring the issue you really get the point driven into YOUR head that repeated concussions are bad for you. Does this news change anyone’s desire to play risky sports? Nope.
I was frankly pretty shocked at just how by-the-books, non-revelatory and generally bland this film is as I’ve grown to expect nothing but near genius from Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “Stevie,” “The Interrupters”). And “Head Games” certainly isn’t boring, or a bad film, it just never really scratches beneath the surface of something pretty much anyone who’s suffered less than 5 concussions already knew. Maybe I’m too much of a sports fan and am too familiar with the dangers of football, boxing and hockey but very few things were surprising here and I kept waiting for something big and shocking to occur. It never did for me.
In the film we meet former pro-wrestler and concussion expert Chris Nowinski, who pro rasslin’ fans will remember as a heel who was also the WWE’s first Harvard Alumnus. Nowinski serves as the narrative through-line here and also wrote the book “Head Games,” on which this doc is based. He’s an eloquent, friendly and decent guy who is passionate about getting the message out to anyone who will listen about the unspoken danger of concussions. Nowinski isn’t wrong and his message needs to be heard, and it is, slowly but surely.
While Nowinski (and others) did manage to get the NFL to institute stricter rules and regulations regarding concussions and proper treatment thereof, Nowinski is still a tireless advocate for his cause, speaking at colleges, high schools and school board meetings. It’s an extremely admirable cause and a morally correct thing to do. But noble and correct causes don’t always equal fascinating documentaries and, at the end of the day and by the end of the film, all everyone seems to take away from Nowinski’s insights is that they now understand the inherent risks and will take them under advisement. That’s not exactly an enthralling climax to a film.
Never is this more clear than when the film sits down with hockey great Keith Primeau and former women’s soccer star and Olympic gold medalist Cindy Parlow-Cone. Both athletes admit to having more than the recommended lifetime allowance of concussions, Primeau due to the brutality of a lifetime of hockey and Parlow-Cone due to her tall frame and the fact she scored literally half of her goals with her head. Both still feel the effects of concussions today, even though they’re several years removed from their sports. Yet even so, the film frequently cuts away to both of them coaching, cheering and supporting their own children in the very sport that’s left them feeling dazed for decades.
Further, with the way pro and even high school and college athletes are trained to be bigger, faster and stronger than ever before, the chances of these kids getting walloped in the head and suffering injury must be sky-high, yet this is never covered. In the film, “Head Games” doesn’t touch on the “why” of more concussions these days but rather goes for the idea that it’s always been an issue that is just now being uncovered. I frankly disagree with this assessment and think the obvious cause for more head injuries is the sheer growth in strength and athleticism (through steroids, human growth hormones or better training) in sports and, until that is addressed, no helmet is going to help a quarterback or hockey player protect their head.
“Head Games” does have some truly sad and fairly astonishing stories about concussions in sports and the lengths that have been gone through to keep them hush-hush. There’s also the whole “walk it off” mentality and the fact that if you get hurt and admit it, you may lose your incredibly lucrative job that you’ve spent your whole life trying to get. But on the flipside of those important parts of the film, I also found the lack of any really big, superstar athlete championing James and Nowinski’s message kind of strange and found it took away from the impact of the information being delivered.
“Head Games” is important information for people who are unfamiliar with the health risks of sports. If you follow sports, particularly the NFL or NHL, there’s not going to be much here you didn’t already know. This is also an important film for parents who may not know much about sports to see before signing off on what their kids play. Yet as a fan of both Steve James and pro-sports, I was expecting more than “Head Games” delivered and as a result, I was disappointed.