- Head Games (2012) dir. by Steve James
Near the end of Head Games, Steve James’s documentary on concussions in sports, New York Times Deputy Sports Editor Jason Stallman summarizes the film’s primary concern by asking, “What if the real damage is done by dozens, if not hundreds, of seemingly innocuous collisions?” It is significant that the final words on the phenomenon of “subconcussive” hits (undiagnosed concussive blows) are uttered by a newspaper editor instead of the many medical professionals who immediately precede him on the topic. This is because Head Games presents a journalistic argument that the cumulative dangers of sports-related concussions begin in youth athletics. While the film laudably extends the discussion of brain injuries in sports beyond the limited purview of the recent National Football League (NFL) scandal (although it takes on the NFL and other professional sports leagues, like the National Hockey League [NHL]), it does not always succeed as a documentary that upholds high journalistic standards.
James’s focus on the hazards of youth sports is unsurprising in light of his oeuvre. After the remarkable Hoop Dreams (1994), he has revisited youths in subsequent documentaries, [End Page 97] including Stevie (2002) and The Interrupters (2011). In this instance, however, James does not have key participants with as much flair as he did in those other films—such as the Agees in Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters’s Flamo, and the titular Stevie—to serve as a fulcrum around which the broader sociocultural and economic issues turn. The closest he comes to this in Head Games is with former Harvard football player Christopher Nowinski, who wrote the eponymously titled book that inspired the film after suffering head injuries during a brief stint as a professional wrestler. Nowinski is not short on charisma, mind you, but James tries too hard to make him into a colorful central character. In one of the film’s more forced moments, for example, James cuts to obviously re-enacted footage of Nowinski scouring the archives and engrossed in his research to display his passion for the subject. Unfortunately, this is not an anomalous occurrence, as the film contains many similarly heavy-handed attempts to evoke pathos with stock documentary techniques, including re-enactments, found footage, and talking heads. Perhaps most notably, James bookends the film with sideline recordings of an inner-city-youth football game featuring an under-dog team with a well-meaning coach who, like the filmmaker himself, is clearly invested in bettering the community yet uncritically encourages his diminutive players to think of their helmet as the “rock” that will allow them to take down “Goliath.” Although James’s effort to balance youth athletics’s benefits and drawbacks is one of the film’s strengths, such moments feel tacked on because they are secondary to his highlighting the individuals at the forefront of the larger public health debate about concussions in sports.
The decision to center the film on experts is not only troubling for taking James out of his filmmaking wheelhouse. It also leads to the film’s biggest problem: its questionable journalistic ethics. Vying with Nowinski for the most screen time is a cast of physicians and journalists also engaged in the battle to change the handling of traumatic brain injuries in sports. Chief among these participants are Boston University (BU) physician Robert Cantu and New York Times journalist Alan Schwarz. Schwarz is a logical choice. After Nowinski showed him the impressive research findings for his book, Schwarz penned a story about the link between concussions and retired Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters’s suicide, which helped ignite the media firestorm about the NFL’s negligence on the issue. The film, likely with some accuracy, depicts Schwarz as an intrepid reporter unafraid to challenge even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, as he proves by playing a recording of Goodell’s willful denial of the evidence the journalist presents to him about the disastrous ramifications of brain injuries in football. Yet the film conveniently hides Schwarz’s role as an associate producer on Head Games until the end credits. Schwarz’s part in...