Christopher Nowinski was a brilliant football player. He was an All-Ivy defensive tackle for Harvard, an expert at doling out brutal hits. “I loved the violence of it,” he says, recalling his days on the field. “It was the closest thing to being a warrior without ever having to go to war.”
Fast-forward a decade, and his attitude has changed: “If I had a 6 year old playing football, I’d be freaked out. And rightfully so, because you’re playing Russian roulette with their future.”
Nowinski’s nine-year struggle to publicize and combat the dangers head injuries pose to athletes who participate in contact sports is the foundation of Head Games, a new documentary from celebrated filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) that hit theaters and video-on-demand Friday. In some respects, it’s a horror film disguised as a documentary, intercutting information about the latest research on the permanent damage being done to athletes of all ages who play contact sports like football and hockey with profiles of professional players who suffered debilitating effects and even premature death because of their injuries.
In 2006, NFL player Andre Waters shot himself. He had sustained several concussions throughout his years of playing. “You know you had a good hit when you hear the guy grunt,” Waters says, hauntingly, in an old interview featured in Head Games. After his death, it was revealed that Waters suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to the kind of head trauma football players routinely encounter—and which can cause depression, loss of impulse control, and, in some cases, suicide.
It all seems embarrassingly obvious. Three-hundred-pound men pummeling into each other repeatedly causes grave injury. But for the sports fans who park in front of their TV sets every NFL Sunday and who obsessively watch videos of hockey fights on YouTube; for players who shake their disoriented heads after seeing stars and trot back on the field; for the coaches and athletic directors who pat those players on the back as they re-enter the game, the problem that’s been staring everyone directly in the face—we may be killing these people—has been shockingly pushed under the rug for decades.
“It’s hard to be a fan and have that awareness at the same time,” James tells The Daily Beast. “You want to lose yourself in watching the team play. It’s a big bummer to watch and think about these guys doing irreparable damage to themselves.”
Nowinski, who researched the effects of concussions on athletes with a team at Boston University, first published his warnings in Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis, the film that inspired James’s documentary. New York Times sportswriter Alan Schwarz picked up the beat as more players’ suicides began being linked to CTE. More harrowing statistics followed, such as a study revealing that NFL players ages 30 to 49 were 19 times more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other memory-related diseases.
“It’s been known for a long time that banging your head over and over can be a bad thing,” says Schwarz in the documentary. Yet it’s only been recently that anyone started to do anything about it.
In Head Games, we see a rotating cast of characters, including parents, coaches, medical experts, and players, who are becoming increasingly aware of their sports’ dangers, but can’t resist participating in and enjoying the game. The father of Owen Thomas, a former Penn football player who committed suicide at age 21, is interviewed at his son’s grave. It was revealed after Thomas’s death in 2010 that he was in early stages of CTE, the same brain disease associated with hard tackles that led to depression and suicide among much older football players. At the graveyard, his father fondly and emotionally recalls the camaraderie and pure happiness his son—his entire family—felt when he played the game.
It’s an example of the excruciating tension at play with contact sports. “You see the joy parents themselves derive from watching their kids do well and commit themselves and play with passion, the lessons they learned, and all that stuff,” James says. “But the whole time they have a gnawing feeling in the back of their minds: Am I being a good parent by letting them do this?”
But it’s more than a parenting issue. “Leave it all on the field” and “play through the pain” are guiding principles in sports. It’s macho to take a blow to the head, shake it off, and rejoin the game. The behavior is ingrained in sports culture; it will take more than a New York Times exposé or press conference from Roger Goodell to change that. It’s just like how smoking education fails to persuade so many people not to smoke, James says.
In one sequence in the film, Nowinski travels to a high school to educate the parents and athletes about concussions. The team’s athletic director accuses him of fear-mongering, making the (very true) point that not everyone who plays football develops CTE and that Nowinski could be harming the game with his graphs and statistics. The team’s coach scheduled a weightlifting practice during the presentation so that his players could not attend. “But even though there’s hardheadedness—pun intended—out there about the dangers,” James says, “I do think the culture is changing.”
But it took tragic suicides, relentless press coverage, and a congressional hearing for the NFL to make strides to protect its players more from head injury. (Nowinski admits that the league “went from being a naysayer to a powerful advocate” for the cause.) Similarly, it will be a challenge for a shift in mind-set, an increase in awareness, and more precautionary safety measures to trickle down to the world of Friday Night Lights and Pee-Wee sports. Contact, after all, is part of the reason why people are attracted to contact sports. They like hitting people. It’s why they play football and hockey, and not tennis or track. Take that away, or neuter the violence too much, and enrollment drops. No youth sports program wants to set itself up for that.
“A lot of 60-, 70-year-old former NFL players, they talk about a time when they weren’t allowed to play until they were 12,” Nowinski says. Now kids as young as 6 are playing. Whereas when he was growing up, sports were seasonal and there was only one season of competitive playing trauma, now football and hockey have year-round teams. One high-school football player, he says, recorded taking 2,235 blows to the head in one season when his teammates averaged 600. As the NFL wakes up to the startling realities of head trauma, youth sports are still navigating uncharted waters. Educating parents and those young players, James says, was a main reason he made Head Games.
But how dire, exactly, is the situation? There are certainly things that can be done. Parents, coaches, and young athletes should be educated on how to spot a concussion and the long-term effects of the injury before any game is played, Nowinsky says. Players need to be removed from games immediately after suffering one, not given a badge of honor for playing through the pain. The reality that there may be an age at which kids are too young for contact sports needs to be considered.
Nowinski is also pitching a program similar to a pitch count in baseball, which limits how many times a player should throw a baseball in a day in order to prevent injury to his or her elbow. A “hit count” or “tackle count,” for example, would have prevented that one high schooler from being tackled three times more than any of his teammates. The NFL, which has doubled down on its efforts to prevent head injuries, is already proving that the game can be safer and still be fun.
“Scoring’s up, and you have your best talent on the field more,” Nowinski says. “So there is zero downside to a safer game. You just have to get past the fear of adding risk that comes with change.”