‘Hoop Dreams’ director takes on dangers of concussions in latest film ‘Head Games’

A scene during Steve James's documentary
A scene during Steve James's documentary "Head Games," in an undated handout image. The documentary examines the long-term consequences of some high-impact sports.

CHICAGO — The North Side Raiders look like little men as they take the field for their Pee Wee football game in the opening scene of Head Games, their shoulder pads and helmets dwarfing the rest of their small bodies.

Only the Raiders aren't little men and, the film argues, the games they’re playing could do irreparable damage to their brains.

“We’ve got to get past this, ‘Little kids involved in a pillow fight’ mentality,” concussion guru Chris Nowinski said. “If parents knew what I knew, they would not be tolerating a lot of things in the sports world that they are. We are clearly exposing children to needless risk, and we’re not upset about it. And we should be.

The concussion crisis that has engulfed the NFL and NHL is now a big screen documentary titled Head Games, by Hoop Dreams director Steve James. Inspired by Nowinski’s book by the same name, the film blends a stark, sometimes graphic portrayal of the science of concussions with personal stories of parents and athletes struggling with head injuries’ potentially devastating effects.

Head Games opened Friday in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The 90-minute film also will be available on demand at iTunes and Amazon, as well as from some cable and satellite providers.

“Before making the film, I had the typical fan’s knowledge of the issue and shared concerns about its potential seriousness. But I also thought that perhaps it was all being overblown a bit by the media,” James said in an email to the Associated Press. “Making the film helped me realize that while there’s so much we don't know, it's an issue that deserves to be seen as a huge public health issue.

“It’s why we chose to make a film more focused on informing an audience versus my usual approach, which is to focus more on the life or lives of a very few people.”

By now, most people know sports has a concussion problem. Research has shown that repeated blows to the head can lead to brain trauma, with a study released earlier this month finding that NFL players were unusually prone to dying from degenerative brain disease.

The NFL faces more than 140 lawsuits from almost 3,500 former players, including at least 26 Hall of Famers, who allege the league conspired to hide the dangers of concussions.

Former NHL MVP Sidney Crosby was essentially sidelined for 14 months because of concussion-related symptoms. Enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, tough guys who made their livings by dropping their gloves, all died in the summer of 2011; Boogaard's brain showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that's been found in other former fighters.

But that drip, drip, drip of information doesn't have the same impact as a 90-minute tutorial on concussion awareness.

The film includes extensive interviews with NHL All-Star Keith Primeau, whose career was cut short by concussions and Nowinski, whose own history of concussions led him to write Head Games and found the Sports Legacy Institute. It also features interviews with concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu and parents struggling to decide whether to pull their children out of the sport they love following a head injury.

As easy as the information in the film is to absorb, its details are unflinching, including:

■ Tissue samples from former players’ brains with what look like charring, or cigarette burn holes — a telltale sign of CTE.

■ Cindy Parlow, a member of the U.S. women’s soccer team that won the 1999 World Cup, saying, matter-of-factly, that she always has her GPS on because “I’ll be driving around roads I know by heart and forget where I am.” Parlow, who retired in 2006 because of post-concussion syndrome, is 34.

■ Owen Thomas’ mother replaying the voice mail her son left to wish her a happy birthday. The former Penn football captain killed himself a day later at age 21. His brain showed early signs of CTE.

“We wanted to do a film that not only told the story of Chris Nowinski and how concussions became an important public health issue, but also really take viewers through what we do and don't know about concussions,” James wrote. “Along the way, we wanted to show how everyone from professional athletes to pee wee football players are being impacted, and give them and their families a foundation to make important decisions about contact sports.

The professional leagues have made strides in concussion awareness. The NFL and NHL have both cracked down on flagrant hits, and tightened their rules for treating concussions. The NFL now has a trainer at each game whose sole responsibility is to look for players who might have suffered a head injury.

But progress has come slower in youth sports, where parents and coaches have been reluctant to acknowledge their children are as vulnerable as an NFL lineman — maybe even more.

In one scene in Head Games, a trainer accuses Nowinski of scare tactics after he gives a seminar to high school parents and coaches on concussions and head trauma.

Those involved with the film hope Head Games can help close that gap.

“I can certainly say there’s been a change of mentality. But not a complete buy-in,” Primeau said. “We set up a booth at a youth hockey tournament, and a child may stop by to see the information only to have the parent scurry them along so I guess they’re not exposed to it. That’s a fear and an ignorance we need to overcome.

“Ignoring it doesn’t mean it’s not going on.”