'Head Games' doc explores concussions

The Steve James film, available on iTunes and Facebook, examines the effects of concussions on athletes of all ages. Courtesy of Variance Films

Look at the NFL’s weekly injury report and pick out the players who are dealing with concussions or concussion symptoms.

Then realize that there are many thousands more athletes, and not just football players, who are dealing with these kinds of brain injuries each step down the ladder.

With each rung, the order of magnitude increases: If it’s five in the NFL, it’s 50 in the NCAA. If it’s 50 in the NCAA, it’s 500 in high school. And if it’s 500 in high school, it’s 5,000 in youth sports.

That’s one way that “getting your bell rung” is put into perspective. More effective, still, is the new documentary “Head Games,” which puts a human face on the numbers. The film debuts Friday in NYC and LA and is downloadable via iTunes and Facebook (see the "Head Games" website for more details).

The film’s driving force is Chris Nowinski, a former defensive lineman at Harvard who turned to the WWE instead of the NFL (or an MBA). He gave up wrestling when, competing as “Chris Harvard” —- imagine a 6-foot-5, 270-pound Ricky Stratton from "Silver Spoons" —- he hit his head, forgot the script and developed a pounding headache.

After the match, he says, all he wanted to do was curl up on the arena’s cold, concrete floor.

His athletic career was over, but his career as an advocate for the study of brain injuries in contact sports was born. His first step was to write a book about his concussion problems and those of other athletes competing in contact sports. "Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis" was published in 2006, paving the way for the film.

“I’m 33, and I couldn’t have imagined all the twists and turns my life has taken,” Nowinski says. “To kind of drive a documentary is pretty wild.”

Taking an altruistic route as a key member of the Sports Legacy Institute near Boston, which studies brain injuries, Nowinski says, feels better than playing in the NFL ever could have.

“My mother and my two sisters are social workers, so I think it’s partly genetic that we have to do something with our lives that makes a positive impact,” he says.

The film is directed and produced by Steve James, who rose to fame by shepherding the acclaimed documentary “Hoop Dreams.” In 90 minutes, "Head Games" goes a long way to educate people who might not have closely followed the concussion epidemic and will probably serve as a cornerstone for teaching young athletes and their coaches on both concussions and “subconcussive” blows. Some school districts are requiring athletes and coaches to watch the film before participating in concussion clinics.

Perhaps the strongest takeaway is that multiple doctors say “seeing stars” after taking a big hit means you’ve had some type of brain trauma — and it’s not OK to go back on the field. It’s a basic philosophy, they say, that must change in all levels of sport.

It is perhaps inevitable that “Head Games” leaves some of its most compelling stories unresolved. Along with Nowinski, we meet other athletes who are trying to move forward with their lives after suffering concussions during their playing careers. Interviewees include Cindy Parlow, a starter on the ’99 World-Cup winning US women’s soccer team; former NHL star Keith Primeau; and a host of teenage athletes who are currently struggling with concussions.

But the problem with a concussion movie about living people is that it’s impossible to know how they will fare down the line.

“Especially [with topical documentaries], one always wants to keep adding new developments both in the science and in the personal stories,” James said in an email. “But I mostly feel good about where we left off with each story.”

In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems in the study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). There’s no way to be certain a living person is affected. Brains must be segmented, stained and studied to be sure.

“If I have someone with a high exposure to brain trauma, both at the concussive and subconcussive level, and if someone has cognitive or emotional symptoms of CTE or if their brain shows atrophy on an MRI, the likelihood [of CTE] is very, very high,” says Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon who co-founded the SLI with Nowinski. “I can’t diagnose it 100 percent -- there are other neurodegenerative diseases -- but I can be very high in the probability.”

That’s why you have athletes who die young donating their brains to science.

And it's also why we'll need a "Head Games" sequel.

See the "Head Games" trailer below: