Review of Head Games

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A documentary that follows football player and wrestler Chris Nowinski's quest to uncover the truth about the consequences of sports related head injuries.
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Movie Review: "Head Games"

-- Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements involving sports injuries and violence)
Length: 96 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2012
Directed by: Steve James
Genre: Documentary

For years, athletes who suffered concussions while playing sports simply walked it off or else they would be thought of as a wimp. In many cases, the athletes may not have known they had a concussion because they didn't realize what the symptoms were. The tragedy of this is that in walking it off or not knowing the signs of a concussion, many of these athletes were setting themselves up for possible medical complications later.

"Head Games" tells the story of former professional wrestler and football player Chris Nowinski as he tries to educate the public on just how serious concussions can be. He authored the book of the same name that inspired the documentary and travels the country now trying to educate athletes and especially the parents of young athletes about the dangers.

Nowinski suffers from post-concussion syndrome (PCS), a condition that makes some of the effects of a concussion linger for months or even years after the initial injury. He had to retire from pro wrestling after only three years because of his injuries, cutting short a promising career. Since then, he has tirelessly worked as an advocate for research and education about brain injuries. What he found is that most people see concussions and head trauma as something that only pro athletes suffer from. Unfortunately, children who play organized sports and even adults who play amateur sports can all fall victim to these types of injuries.

Director Steve James is no stranger to sport documentaries, having helmed the outstanding "Hoop Dreams." With "Head Games," he once again takes up a very dangerous and emotionally charged issue that deals with sports and the dream of playing at the pro level. The film is a series of interviews and educational pieces interspersed with a peewee football game. When James cuts from a doctor saying that an athlete may have died due to brain damage to a young kid on the football field, it chills you.

James also shows several athletes and how they are now living with brain injuries that may have been avoidable. Quite a few of them center on football, since Nowinski's book mainly focused on football at all levels. However, James does talk about other sports, particularly the National Hockey League (NHL), and how they are now trying to address this serious issue.

Lest you think the focus is only on men's injuries, former soccer star Cindy Parlow Cone is interviewed about her concussions. She received them on the field while hitting the ball repeatedly with her head and occasionally colliding with other players. Her memory is now so impaired that she doesn't go anywhere without her GPS, even if she has taken the route dozens of times. It is almost harrowing to watch her explain how her lifelong memories can be compromised in her quest for Olympic gold.

Concussions may not seem like the subject of a highly entertaining documentary, but James manages to make "Head Games" riveting. Even if you don't have children who play sports, you probably know someone who does, such as a cousin, niece, nephew or maybe a neighbor's child. The thought that they could be endangering their health at such a young age is something that anyone can understand and empathize with.

"Head Games" pulls off quite a feat in not pointing too many fingers in blame. It is pointed out that people love contact sports like football, where tackling happens on just about every play. People love hockey, where fights are not only the norm, but are expected by many fans. People who tune into NASCAR races may not admit they like the big crashes, but many do. These are the types of sports plays that put people in danger, but James deftly avoids blaming fans and their love of sports violence for the predicament.

Instead, he tries to offer solutions, including education. By making this documentary, he is becoming a part of that solution, because "Head Games" has a lot of excellent information. Any parent who watches it with his or her children will be getting a big dose of that education. This documentary won't put a dent in the macho sports culture that encourages shaking off injuries. It may not change the way all coaches expect their players to continue taking the field when they are injured, but it may change the way the general public sees concussions, which is a good start.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars