How long must a player sit out after a concussion before returning to a sport? In Steve James’ documentary Head Games, an incisive primer on concussions and their deleterious long-term effects on athletes, the answer to that question ranges from “the next play” to “50 years,” depending on who’s being asked. As physicians and scientists grapple with the devastating scope of head injuries in professional and amateur sports, the “walk it off” culture of the games themselves has been slow to change. Players talk about double vision, getting their “bell rung,” or “seeing stars”—concussive events all—and then returning to the field, oblivious (sometimes willfully) to the potential consequences. Then again, even doctors have wildly varied opinions on how much abuse is too much—some say three to five concussions should be cause for retirement, others want no more than one—and a couple of the brain-damaged athletes featured are shown sending their own children out onto the pitch or into the rink after repeated head injuries. The allure of the game is just too strong.
With reports of debilitation and death of retired athletes popping up with increased frequency, and leagues like the NFL trying, often halfheartedly, to address the problem, head injuries have rapidly become Topic A in the sporting world—at least among those who care to acknowledge them at all. Head Games attempts the difficult, if not impossible, task of adequately surveying the landscape, from pro leagues to pee-wees, and from ongoing scientific revelations to the administrators and coaches ostensibly acting to protect the players. James wisely casts Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard defensive linesman and WWE baddie turned concussion activist, as his tour guide into this world, someone who understands the issue from the standpoint of athletes and medical experts. Nowinski and Dr. Robert Cantu of the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute work to spread awareness of head-trauma issues while supporting the postmortem study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the neurodegenerative disease that’s more widespread among athletes than originally imagined.
Though James talks to many families who have lost loved ones to dementia, early death, and even suicide, Head Games cannot, by its nature, evoke their lives as richly as previous James efforts like The Interrupters, Hoop Dreams, or Stevie. But he succeeds at conveying the ever-expanding scope of the issue and the current knowledge and enforcement—and gaps in knowledge and enforcement—that applies to sports on all levels. Head Games is particularly devastating when it shifts from the NFL and NHL, where brutality and headshots are a given, to girls’ soccer and under-14 football leagues, where still-developing young necks and skulls make kids perhaps more vulnerable to head trauma than their professional counterparts. As awareness increases and the dangers become harder to deny, the lingering question is this: How much will games allow themselves to be changed?