How many concussions are too many? The documentary suggests the magic number might be one.

csjlong's picture

Andre Waters was a beast.

Some of my fondest memories watching football as a teenager involve “Dirty Waters” administering brutal hits to receivers who had heard the stories, but couldn't believe the reality. When Andre Waters hit you, baby, you stay hit, and when Waters and Wes Hopkins manned safety for the Philadelphia Eagles, they didn't just play in regular old NFL games, they played in games that needed to be named: The Body Bag Game, The House of Pain Game. You did not run across the middle on Andre Waters because that was Andre Waters' house, motha.

In a town that loves hard-hitting football, Andrew Waters was a legend. I doubt that knowledge provided even a sliver of solace on Nov 20, 2006 when Andre Waters put a gun to his head and ended his life at the age of 44. Waters had been battling depression and a host of personal issues including a prolonged custody battle and frustration with his inability to land a coaching job in the NFL, though since he did not leave a note, nobody can know what prompted his final decision.

When Christopher Nowinski heard about Waters' death, he contacted the family and asked permission to have  an autopsy conducted. Nowinski recognized a familiar pattern in Waters' tragic story and wanted to confirm his suspicions. The autopsy revealed signs of extensive brain damage consistent with a diagnosis of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a buildup of clogging proteins that produces forms of dementia and other cognitive impariment, which Nowinski and others believe is the cumulative effect of multiple concussions. Nowinski's research revealed that the condition was far more prevalent among NFL players than the league wanted to admit; in tandem with medical professionals at Boston University and elswehere, he launched a campaign that eventually forced the NFL to being its own investigation.

“Head Games” (2012), the new documentary directed by Steve James, allows Nowinski (whose book “Head Games” provided the movie's starting point) the opportunity to present his findings to a larger audience. Nowinski had personal reasons for starting his crusade. As a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, he suffered several concussions, but had no idea how potentially serious they were. That's because there was nobody around to tell him. In a hyper-macho culture also motivated by the bottom line, there has always been great motivation to get athletes back on the field or in the ring as soon as possible: the double vision will clear up, just go hit somebody. Athletes who want to maintain their tough guy image have little choice but to play along.

The film paints a dire picture that will strike fear into the hearts of many parents. How many concussions are too many? The documentary suggests the magic number might be one. And you don't have to get knocked for a loop to have a concussion; even if you just see stars for a few seconds, you might have suffered the kind of head trauma that merits immediate attention and possibly even significant life changes. According to Nowinski, as many as fifty percent of NFL players have concussion symptoms, though the numbers are difficult to confirm since so many players remain silent for fear of losing playing time or even a job. And it's not just football. The dangers of hockey with its full body checking might seem obvious, but even hitting a soccer ball with that little ol' bony shell that covers your spongy brain can prove debilitating, especially to student athletes.

“Head Games” walks a fine line with its acute and dramatic claims. For example, the film does not explicitly link CTE to Waters' suicide, but certainly strongly suggestis a direct relationship which might not be merited, especially considering the extenuating circumstances in Waters' late days which go unreferenced in the film. Regardless, there can be little doubt that the NFL wanted to sweep this problem under the rug, forming its own “unbiased” committee that conveniently discovered no solid proof that there were any long term effects associated with having your skull banged around violently over and over. Eventually, Nowinski's prodding was at least partly responsible for the league finally fessing up and conducted major changes in safety protocols. Of course, it was the immediate threat of massive lawsuits by former players suffering from various stages of dementia that ultimately forced the league's hand: money talks.

Unfortunately, the film can do little more than raise awareness. That's vital, but young and impressionable athletes dreaming of fame and fortune are never going to believe it will happen to them until it happens to them. There is no treatment for CTE, and nobody thinks that contact sports are going away any time soon. Even Dr. Ann McKee, one of the movie's go-to experts who repeatedly describes the life-changing effects of head trauma in sports, admits that she loves football. Perhaps if the message gets out to enough people, we can at least shame the imbeciles who clog sports talk show lines with cries about how today's players are “sissies” who should “wear dresses”. 'Cause wanting to be able to count to ten at the age of fifty means you're a wuss.

The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The visual design is pretty straightforward with mostly talking heads, charts, and some archival footage. The transfer is solid enough though the image quality obviously varies with the archival sources.

The DVD is presented with 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks. I can detect no noteworthy difference between the two options. Dialogue is clearly recorded which is all that really matters. No subtitles are provided.

None on this bare bones release, not even an insert booklet or a Trailer.

Film Value:
Young athletes might not be ready to hear the message, but parents at least can benefit from increased awareness of the real risks when they decide whether to clear their kids to play contact sports. As for the professional level, I suspect the lure of money and the fun of the game will always win out over self-preservation, but at least the league has already been pressured into making major changes.


Film Value