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Sunday, June 03, 2012
'Head Games': Steve James documentary focuses on brain trauma
From the May 10th edition of The Chicago Tribune:
Less than a year after "The Interrupters"opened in theaters, Chicago-based director Steve James has another movie coming down the pike. He's still putting the finishing touches on the film, a documentary about sports concussions called "Head Games," but he let me take an early look last week. So there I was, about to pop the screener in, when news broke that former NFL linebacker Junior Seau had killed himself.
Ugly coincidence, though I suspect it won't be the last. Citing concerns about brain trauma, 31-year-old offensive guard Jacob Bell surprised many with his abrupt decision four days ago to retire from the NFL altogether, a mere month after signing a free-agent contract with Cincinnati. We are only just beginning to understand the extent to which these injuries impact people's lives. Meanwhile (as the film makes explicit) hundreds if not thousands of athletes — many on the youth sports level — are absorbing a disturbing number of subconcussive hits. A concussion is bad, period. But those subconcussive hits, which might not even hurt at the moment of impact, may do the most damage, according to the latest research.
Let's take a moment to point out that there is no scientific evidence that Seau's suicide, at 43, was the result of head trauma suffered during his football career. Experts will need to examine Seau's brain tissue before making a determination, and it's not clear whether his family will allow that step. We may just never know.
But when you look at the number of professional athletes who have developed problems with impulse control, dementia, depression, drastic changes in personality and the onset of memory deterioration as early as their 40s, the signs do not look good. Just last year, former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson took his own life by shooting himself in the chest, leaving instructions that his brain be studied post-mortem for football-related damage. It seems worth noting that Seau took his life in the same manner.
Coupling that with what has been an especially combative NHL playoff season, I've been thinking about this film and the issues it raises quite a bit. When I met with James earlier this week, he talked about getting it in front of people (parents of school-age athletes in particular) as soon as possible. There is an invite-only red carpet screening Tuesday at Park West, but wider distribution for "Head Games" is still being mapped out. James talked about bypassing the traditional festival circuit altogether, which is almost unheard of for a independent film.
But unlike "The Interrupters," which focused on the attempt to stem violence in Chicago neighborhoods, James thinks (rightly, I'd wager) that "Head Games" will have an easier time finding an audience from the get-go. The film speaks to a national obsession with collision sports. Players and spectators alike want that smash-mouth action, but at what cost? "Why are you bashing your head into a 300-pound lineman?" Stephen Colbert asks incredulously in a clip James includes in the film. "Your brain is spongecake floating in a bone bucket. Stop now, while you don't have to wear a diaper." It's more complicated than that, of course. "I'm getting dinged all the time and I can't be thinking about the long-term consequences," is how one former NFL player that James filmed puts it.
Link to the film's official page here. The site includes a trailer for the film.
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