The concussion crisis currently plaguing contact sports gets a thorough and thought-provoking examination in HEAD GAMES, a new documentary from HOOP DREAMS director Steve James. Structured around former professional wrestler Christopher Nowinski's impassioned advocacy for increased study of and sensitivity to brain injuries (detailed in his book bearing the same title), HEAD GAMES treats the troubling subject with the seriousness it deserves without ever resorting to alarmist rhetoric. The concussion issue, and the investigation into the degenerative disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), is certainly frightening for athletes and parents of athletes to consider, but James realizes that no one would benefit from a full-scale, get-your-kids-off-the-football-field freak out. Contact sports don't need to be abolished, but they way they're played and taught absolutely needs to be rethought.
But if you walk away from HEAD GAMES convinced that your kid will never, ever play football, hockey or even soccer, no one would blame you. As the film demonstrates over a tightly-focused ninety-three minutes, we still have much to learn about CTE and its connection to other degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and ALS. In other words, anyone who puts on a helmet or heads a soccer ball is, for now, putting themselves at risk. There's no real way of knowing if you're susceptible; all you can do is be honest about your injuries, and trust that your coaches are looking out for your best interests. As an athlete, or as a parent of an athlete, is that good enough?
There are a number of disquieting scenes in HEAD GAMES (most notably, a former football player who's lost the ability to recite the months of the year in their proper order), but James also shows the joy kids get from playing football and hockey. For some young athletes, this sense of camaraderie and accomplishment is an undeniable positive; it's something they may not experience anywhere else in their lives. So how to emphasize the best qualities of contact sports while eliminating, as much as we can, the risk? We're still searching for the answer. Thankfully, we've got a curious and perceptive filmmaker like James on the case.
When I chatted with James on the phone earlier this week, I mostly stuck to the topic of concussions, though I did manage to get him talking a bit about his forthcoming Roger Ebert documentary (produced by Steve Zaillian and Martin Scorsese). I also got an update on his HOOP DREAMS subjects, Arthur Agee and William Gates. Thankfully, it's all good news.
Mr. Beaks: What got you interested in the issue of concussions?
Steve James: I'm a sports fan. I grew up playing sports. It's been hard to avoid as an issue if you follow sports, watch sports and read about sports. I, like a lot of people in that situation, was becoming increasingly alarmed. So when the opportunity came along to try and do a film that could maybe take a rational approach to the issue - not just focus on the horror stories, but help give people more knowledge and information about it, including myself - I [garbled, but I believe he said "took it].
Beaks: I'm assuming you're a football fan. I'm a really big fan myself, and I think there's a kind reticence to find out too much about the damage being done to these players' brains. We really enjoy watching the games, but you can't avoid what's happening.
James: I think it is tough. I love watching football. I never played football, except sandlot football, and I wasn't a hockey player. But we derive a lot of pleasure from watching contact sports, football being the most prominent. It's almost like a religion in America. It is tough because I think you don't want to watch these games thinking about the potential damage being done to these guys; you want to just enjoy the game. And one of the things I found in doing the film was that even people who have kids playing these sports have the same push and pull; they want their kids to be able to participate, but at the same time they're worried about concussions. They don't want to take those sports away from those kids because of the joy they get from them, and they also don't want to take away the joy they as parents get from watching these kids play these sports.
Beaks: How did you hook up with Chris Nowinski?
James: That came about because one of the executive producers on the film, Steve Devick, optioned Chris's book. He was really the one who brought it to my attention. I hadn't read the book, but after reading it I thought it would be a good foundation for doing a documentary. And Chris... there have been a lot of people who've played key roles in increasing our understanding and awareness of this issue, but I don't think there's been anyone who's done more than Chris. So it was important to document his role in bringing this issue to light.
Beaks: I remember as a kid that when you took a big hit in a game, everyone would say, "You got your bell rung." It was never a major concern. But I distinctly remember things changing when [former pro hockey player] Eric Lindros began sustaining concussions. As I recall, it was the first time people were keeping count of how many concussions a player had sustained, and you could see clearly how it was impacting the way he played the game. What's your sense of how the concern about concussions has escalated?
James: Realistically, the concern has only escalated in the last six years - certainly as one that the public has a real awareness of. I mean, yeah, we'd hear about concussions. As the film makes clear, there was a time when the NFL tried to protect quarterbacks more from concussions, because they were getting knocked out of games and were too valuable to the sport. So there was some awareness and concern as it related to quarterbacks, but there was not this sense that there was any long-term damage, and certainly not an awareness in the public - even though there was some awareness growing in the scientific community. But even there it was pretty buried. I think there's been an explosion of research since this has become a public issue. The amount of research going on right now in the area of concussions is incredible. It seems like every day there's new revelations or theories or understandings emerging about the nature of this disease. As one doctor in the film told me, and I don't think this is in the movie, "We're just getting off the starting line in terms of our understanding of this issue. We're a long way from truly understanding everything we need to know."
Beaks: Is it worsening because these players are stronger and faster than they used to be?
James: I think that's partly it. Players are bigger, faster and stronger, and they hit each other harder. But I think it's also - and this hasn't been proven yet - that people have suffered from diseases that they are now seeing at least a link to systematically, if not the actual disease: Alzheimer's being one, and dementia being one. These are diseases that were thought to be their own diseases, and what they're finding is that concussion causes early onset of some of these diseases much more in the population. They even think Lou Gherig's Disease, ALS, could have a connection. They think it's possible that Parkinson's has a connection. If Muhammad Ali donates his brain to science when he dies, they may find that a big part of his problem is CTE, not Parkinson's. I think part of what's happened is that concussion symptoms have been masked because they are directly related or symptomatic of other diseases. We just haven't been paying much attention. We haven't been looking. And a lot of ex-athletes, out of embarrassment and concerns for their privacy... we haven't heard about them. But now we're hearing those stories.
Beaks: Were there people you tried to get for this documentary who didn't want to go on the record about their condition?
James: We started wanting to do the film more about professional sports, football in particular. But as we got into it, I kind of decided I wanted to do a film that was less about what we're reading about pretty consistently in the papers, like Junior Seau and all of these tragic stories. Jim McMahon was somebody we reached out to when we were filming, but he wasn't comfortable at the time. He's since changed his mind, which I think is good. Dave Duerson was another. He was dead by the time we started the film, but his family was in the process of preparing a lawsuit, so it was delayed. By the time they were ready and willing to talk, it was too late for us with the film. There were some situations like that. But more importantly, what we found as we went along was that we really wanted the film to shift after focusing on how pro football in particular was the catalyst for understanding this issue and breaking down some barriers - which pro football is a perfect metaphor for, and in reality was a real barrier that needed to be broken through. Then we wanted to move on to dealing more with what it means for amateur athletes. The great majority of people who play football are never going to make it to the NFL, or hockey and the NHL, or soccer and the World Cup. But there's millions of kids who participate in these sports at the amateur level and even up through college, and we really wanted to make sure the film spent some time focusing on them.
Beaks: Do you think the way football is played will be radically different in, say, fifteen years?
James: Yeah. I think football is going to have to change. They're either going to have to make some radical progress on the equipment front, which hasn't happened yet, or they're going to have to continue to make changes in the amount of contact that happens in practice so that they start to reduce the amount of contact players sustain during the course of the season. There are a lot of changes already underway, and I think there will be a lot of changes coming if football is going to survive. It's a tricky balance. At what point is it no longer football in the way that people love the game? I think the biggest threat to football is the issue of sub-concussive blows. If they really start to prove conclusively that repeated sub-concussive blows can have the same effect as concussions, that's not going to bode well for the game as we know it - because those kind of blows happen on every play at the line of scrimmage, if not everywhere on the field.
Beaks: I went into the film thinking you might take a harder stance on the danger of concussions, but it ends up being more ambivalent. I really appreciated that. As you said, people still want to play these games, and they want their kids to play them. As you were making the film, did you find your opinion on the subject shifting?
James: I feel like I went in wondering more about whether there was a good deal too much hysteria over what's going on, and not enough rational discussion about what we know and what we don't know. The film was an attempt to be that. There's a lot of handwringing going on, and strong, negative opinions being put out now about concussions and the damage being done. There's a tremendous amount of fears. I think all of them are completely understandable, but what we really need to do is take it very seriously, separate what we know from what we don't know, continue to encourage science to make the strides they're making, and at the same time do our best to educate families, parents and amateur athletes. As is said in the film, it really does start with the athletes on the field. They have to be willing to say, "I got my bell rung; I don't feel right," and not feel like that's an admission of weakness or failure. There's a lot of people who are responsible for this, not just the athletes; it's got to happen at the coaching level and the trainers' level. That scene where Chris is speaking at a high school, and the trainer talks about his daughter having concussion symptoms. "Does that mean she's had concussions?" And it's like, "Yeah. It does. And you should take it more seriously. You're the trainer."
I didn't want the film to be a polemic. I'm not a polemical filmmaker. I've always been more interested in looking at stuff in a more complicated way, trying to give people the knowledge and let them make those choices, whatever the subject matter is, instead of leading them forcefully to a conclusion that I want them to have. And for some people, that's not good. I appreciate that you appreciated that about the film, and that others appreciated it. But other people will say that they wanted a diatribe on this; they want something that takes a hard stance. I'm not the person for the hard stance. I know that parents of athletes who've seen the film thus far in various ways, they come out pretty shellshocked about this, and say, "I've really got to think about this with my kids." They get the message. But they also appreciate that the film doesn't pass judgment on them.
Beaks: You're creating a lot more tennis players.
James: (Laughs) Exactly.
Beaks: As someone who writes about film for a living, and who probably wouldn't be doing this were it not for Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, I'm really interested in this documentary you're doing on Roger. What brought this about, and, at this point, what are you trying to accomplish with it?
James: We're just getting underway. Ebert's been a big fan of all my films, I think. Through the years, he's been very kind and supportive, starting with HOOP DREAMS in a big way. I've always thought he was a really terrific critic. I always appreciated the fact that he wrote so intelligently about film, but never set himself above films - even films he didn't like, as critics sometimes can do. He brought a level of popular understanding and thinking about film critically, that maybe no other critic did, to people who just love movies, to help them think in their own way critically about films. The show was really fascinating in its influence on film, and this sort of alchemy between him and Gene Siskel. And to read his memoir, and be struck by how candid and honest and poignant and funny it is. It's a really great read about a guy who fell into being a movie critic. It wasn't his aspiration as a kid. He wanted to be a newspaperman, I think in big part because he loved hanging around with real characters. The newspaper industry was full of characters, and people you got to meet as a reporter oftentimes were characters, especially in Chicago at that time. He still to this day loves to hang around characters; that's why he admires filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog so much. All of that is really interesting to me. I just think it's a film that can say a lot about the movies and about criticism, and about one man's life who's been through a lot. I think that his life on a personal level has a lot to say to us.
I was first approached by Steve Zaillian and Garrett Basch, who runs Zaillian's company [Film Rites], asking would I be interested in doing a documentary. At that point, I hadn't read the memoir, which had just come out. So I quickly read the memoir, and I said I'd love to do it. And then we got Martin Scorsese to come on as an executive producer. It's really just getting underway, but I've very excited to do the film.
Beaks: I have to ask: have you spoken to Arthur and William lately?
James: Yeah. William just recently just moved his family out of Chicago. They've moved to San Antonio. They wanted to get a fresh start someplace else, which I totally get, and they're really excited about the change they've made. Arthur I just saw recently. He had a camp going a couple of weeks ago, kind of a day camp through his role model foundation he's had for years, which started with him and his dad. He dropped by the house to pick up an extra HOOP DREAMS DVD. (Laughs) I'm not sure where his are, but I gave him an extra HOOP DREAMS DVD for the camp; he was going to show it to the camp a half-hour a day. But it was great to see him. They're both doing well. They're both forty years now. (Laughs) They're not young men anymore.
HEAD GAMES opens today in Los Angeles and New York City. It will expand throughout the month of October. Don't miss it.