PodKast: Steve James on "Head Games," concussions and reality TV

Over the last few years, there has been a heightened awareness about concussions, brain injuries and the long-term risks potentially faced by athletes as the result of playing contact sports (and even sports commonly designated as "non-contact.") It's at the forefront of the NFL landscape, whether you're talking Bountygate, lawsuits or new penalties assessed for helmet-to-helmet hits. And as Lakers fans are well aware, even the Mamba-est of NBA superstars are susceptible.

The more learned about the subject, the more serious it must be regarded.

With that in mind, we were joined by documentary filmmaker Steve James, best known for the seminal, groundbreaking "Hoop Dreams." (If you haven't seen the movie, correct this immediately. It's a unique, emotionally gripping, and important film.) He also directed "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson" as part of ESPN's outstanding "30 for 30" series. His latest movie, "Head Games," sparked by the same-titled book from former Harvard defensive lineman and ex-WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski, examines the issue of concussions in sports and the widespread effects.

Click on the module to hear the show, and a breakdown of talking points can be found below:

Play Download

- (1:25): James explains how he grew interested in this issue, and why meeting various athletes who'd suffered these injuries amplified its importance.

- (5:40): Regarding concussions and brain injury, what have we learned and what remains a mystery?

- (9:40): As more former NFL players (Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, among others) have taken their own lives, research on the brains of such athletes to better understand any link between these tragedies and brain injuries has increased. For a more complete study, notes James, scientists must also study the brains of NFL players with no outward signs of depression or similar problems.

- (11:50): Whether because of heads willfully planted in the sand or a genuine lack of information, across all walks of the sports world some remain in denial about the prevalence of brain injuries. James notes as well the dilemma suffered by parents torn between awareness of the risks and the joy their kids experience from these sports. What's "too young" when it comes to playing contact sports? How safe are these sports at the grade school and high school levels?

- (18:22): James shares thoughts on Bountygate.

- (21:00): Beyond the potential tie between brain injuries and depression, what problems are created by the lifestyle change for athletes upon retirement from contact sports? Suddenly, a career centered on some degree of violence ends, taking the outlet for aggression with it. For that matter, a life spent as a modern day gladiator -- along with the accompanying accolades and limelight -- also concludes. Could this also trigger drastic mood swings?

- (24:00): James' children are now grown, but if he faced the choice today, would he allow them to play football or hockey?

- (26:45): It has been nearly 20 years since the release of "Hoop Dreams" in 1994, a time when reality TV basically consisted of "The Real World" still in its infancy, documentary projects were considered largely niche and the Internet, relatively speaking, barely existed. Since then, reality TV is everywhere, sports specials like "Hard Knocks" offer insane access, and we broadcast our lives on YouTube. From the perspective of a documentarian, what does James think of the world as we currently know it?