In what feels more like a passion project for former athlete turned health advocate Christopher Nowinski than a proper feature from Hoop Dreams co-director Steve James, the documentary Head Games nonetheless offers compelling insight into the hot button issue of concussions in sports just in time for football season and something we probably would be talking about in hushed tones if there was a hockey season to immediately look forward to when discussing the status of Sidney Crosby.
Based around Nowinski’s own book on the subject from 2006, Head Games looks at the correlation between blunt force athletic trauma to the head and brain damage from repeated concussions. Formerly seen only as an affliction common to boxers, Nowinski – who started his career as a defensive tackle for Harvard before becoming a contestant on WWE’s Tough Enough and eventually ending up as one of the company’s star villains – watched his days as an athlete crumble after an in ring botch gave him a full year of headaches and sleepless nights. James chronicles Nowinski’s efforts to bring to light his own plight by showing the media how relatable it was.
The bad science, cover-ups, and eventual rule changes being used to protect the NFL and NHL predominantly takes centre stage with some great personal stories included to illustrate Nowinski’s points, but the style here is more of that of a news magazine than of the personal stories James has become known for as a director. It’s also interesting to question the tenacity of Nowinski’s crusade, calling the families of deceased athletes to see if they can have their brains examined by scientists to further their cause.
It’s interesting to think about since without this research, it seems quite likely that Nowinski and his team of doctors, lawyers, and analysts wouldn’t have much sway with a largely uncaring public. Nowinski’s passion is undeniable. He wants to make the sports he loves so much safer for younger generations in an effort to increase player longevity and institute safer rules and equipment for gladiatorial sports. Nowinski’s real goal gels later in the film when James looks at how children are becoming afflicted at earlier ages, and how girls have become more susceptible in games like soccer and field hockey than people probably realize.
The NHL looks like it has a positively glowing track record when compared to the NFL, which a congressman actually says ignored the dangers of repeated concussions like the tobacco industry ignored cancer. Either way, facts like these hold a real emotional punch even if it’s all presented in a very straightforward manner. The whistleblowing takes away from the more personal nature of how it affects extended family and the players themselves at times, but it still hits home with even casual sports fans or the uninitiated.