Home » Head Games Movie Review: Not The Film I Was Hoping To See

Head Games Movie Review: Not The Film I Was Hoping To See

Reviewing Head Games, the new sports concussion docudrama from director Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame, proved to be a tough assignment.

Each time I watched the movie, first at a "premiere red carpet" sneak preview in Boston back in June, and twice again on DVD this week, I tried to put myself in the position of the average viewer; not only to put to one side the deep knowledge I have of the film's subject as a result of covering concussions in youth sports for MomsTEAM for the past twelve years, but also my professional relationships with three of the film's principals, Chris Nowinski, former Harvard College football player, ex entertainment wrestler, and concussion educator and advocate, neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, MD, and Executive Producer, Steve Devick.

Three young football players on the sideline

Ultimately, I concluded that it was an exercise in futility. I am simply just too close to the subject to be an objective, disinterested observer. Indeed, I realized that I would actually be doing readers of MomsTEAM a disservice if I did not review Head Games through the lens of my own knowledge and experience.

So, what then, did I think of the movie?

Unfortunately, I came away from each viewing of the movie more disappointed than the last.

Perhaps it is because I am a born-and-bred New Englander who values straight talk, and who relies on Yankee ingenuity and a can-do attitude to find solutions to the many challenges youth sports parents face on a daily basis, but Head Games was not the solution-driven movie, and hence not the documentary, I was hoping it would be.

I was hoping for a movie that didn't use, as countless other books and television documentaries have already done, the suicides of former NFL players Andre Waters and Mike Webster, and University of Pennsylvania football captain Owen Thomas - and the autopsies of their brains that showed them to have been afflicted with a devastating degenerative neurological disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) - to strongly suggest that all athletes who play contact or collision sports for any length of time, whether or not they have ever been diagnosed with a concussion, are at significant risk of developing CTE. I came away disappointed.

I was hoping for a movie that would do more than bash the National Football League, yet again, for the way it failed to address the issue of concussions for so many years, or do more than provide Mr. Nowinski and New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz (listed as an Associate Producer of the movie) a soap box on which to stand, puff out their chests, and pat themselves on the back for being the "Davids" trying to fell the NFL's "Goliath." (Just to make sure that no one misses its David and Goliath theme, Head Games bangs the viewer over the head with the reference, explicitly casting the underdog team in a Chicago youth football game it follows over the course of the 90 minutes as David and its opponent as Goliath). I came away disappointed.

I was hoping for a movie that did more than explain, for the umpteenth time, that the reason such a small percentage of the concussions athletes suffer actually end up being reported and, more importantly, treated, is that the culture of contact and collision sports, from Pee Wee to the pros, tells athletes to keep quiet, to play through concussion symptoms, and to return to play before their brains have been given a chance to fully heal, all because they are "warriors" needed on the field of battle. I was hoping for a movie that would explain how, instead of changing the culture - which, I submit, is never going to happen, the solution may be to work around the problem altogether, by using technology to help identify concussed athletes instead of waiting in vain for them to begin honestly self-reporting their symptoms or relying on the ability of sideline personnel to spot signs that an athlete is concussed.  I came away disappointed.

I was hoping for a movie that talked about the steps that are already being taken to reduce the number of concussions in youth sports, such as through education and teaching kids how to tackle without using their heads, or eliminating checking in youth hockey until age 13. I came away disappointed.

I was hoping for a movie that recognized that meeting the challenges concussions pose requires every stakeholder in youth sports to work together, whether it be parents, coaches, educators and reform advocates like Mr. Nowinski and myself, the national governing bodies of sports, or the doctors, athletic trainers, and neuropsychologists charged with the responsibility of identifying and treating concussed athletes and either clearing them to return to play or advising them to retire.  I came away disappointed.

I was hoping for a movie that did more than instill fear in the minds of parents, and ask them, as one recent tweet from the Sports Legacy Institute put it, to "freak out about head injuries in sports," but offered solutions - of which there are plenty, by the way - and hope that there is a way forward. I came away disappointed.  

I was hoping for a movie that didn't have parents leaving the theater thinking that they had essentially only two choices: either not allow their kids to play contact or collision sports at all (as Mr. Nowinski advocates), or, at the very least, not until high school (as Dr. Cantu recommends), or choose to play a dangerous game of "Russian roulette" with their kids' future, as Mr. Nowinski so colorfully put it, by letting them play contact or collision sports in the face of what Head Games would have them believe were very high odds that they would end up, sooner or later, with permanent brain damage at the very least, or, worst case, developing CTE, losing their memory, and ultimately developing early dementia or committing suicide. I came away disappointed.

What I came away feeling is that Head Games is, instead, is a slick, powerful, well-produced movie, boasting superb cinematography, editing and music (kudos to Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame), directed by a master story-teller and agent provocateur (James); a movie clearly intended to evoke in viewers an emotional response, not a rational one; and a movie which is likely to leave many of us who are working hard to meet the concussion challenge in order to make youth sports safer feeling like we had just watched a 90-minute infomercial for Chris Nowinski, the Sports Legacy Institute and the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Instead of charting a way forward, instead of advancing the message that, because there is so much about head trauma that we don't know, the most reasonable approach at this point is to post a yellow "Proceed with Caution" sign while we do what we can to reduce the exposure of young athletes to head trauma and redouble our efforts in concussion protection and risk management, education, research, product development, and treatment, the movie just tries to scare the daylights about of people.

My fear is that the audience Head Games is trying to reach - the parents, coaches, and players who haven't been following the concussion issue all that closely up to now - will come away thinking instead that the road sign that has been posted in front of them is a huge red "Stop" sign. 



We don't have many solutions to the problems of concussions, but have come a very long way in the past few years. Much of the progress is because of Chris Nowinski, Dr. Cantu and Alan Schwartz. Most noteably, your review has the same problems as your complaint of the film; very long on complaints and far too short on (practical) solutions.

Thank you, Diana, for your

Thank you, Diana, for your comments.

First, to your point about my review being too long on complaints and too short on practical solutions, my movie review was not intended to provide solutions; it was just about reviewing the film. Having said that, and lest you think that I am simply talking the talk, but not walking the walk, I believe that, for the past 11 years, MomsTEAM has been all about reducing the risk of concussions and their effects through education and proper management. We haven’t just pointed out problems; we have consistently proposed solutions. Yours was one of about 60 requests that I received by email asking for solutions, so my next blog will be just that: provide a twelve-point plan of action for a safer sport. In the meantime, I think you will find if you poke around our Concussion Safety Center that we do offer lots of practical advice and solutions to parents about how to keep their kids safe.

Second, to your point about Drs. Cantu, Stern and McKee, and Mr. Nowinski being responsible for “much of the progress” over the past few years in addressing the concussion challenge: While I absolutely agree that they have been one of the groups – and certainly the most well-publicized group – raising concussion awareness, I don’t agree that much of the progress is due solely to their efforts. As I wrote in my review, I have enormous respect for Dr. Cantu. He was MomsTEAM’s concussion expert from 2001 until he started the Sports Legacy Institute in 2007. As proof of my continued respect for Bob, you need look no further than our site, where we still run (updated as appropriate) many of the articles Lindsay Barton and I worked with him to create while he was our concussion expert, and still post a group of his “teachable moment” videos (some of which Dr. Cantu has posted on his own site). Not only has Bob been a great adviser, but we refer many patients to him, and were happy to provide him with a great platform early on to reach sports parents. I do not know Drs. Stern or McKee, but respect the work they are doing as well. I first met Mr. Nowinski (and offered him a seat on the board of my non-profit, Teams of Angels) in 2003/2004, two years before his book, Head Games, was published.

Do they deserve credit for raising awareness about the seriousness of traumatic brain injury in sports? Absolutely. But are they the only ones who deserve credit, as the movie strongly suggests? In my opinion, not exactly. Director Steve James had every right to put his particular spin on the concussion challenge (I choose to refer to it as a challenge, not a problem) by focusing the spotlight on the Cantu/McKee/Stern/Nowinski group. But it is also fair to say that their research has largely been in studying one particular, albeit very important, piece of a much larger concussion puzzle: the possible connection between head trauma and CTE. I understand and appreciate why James chose to focus on the Boston group. That I went to such lengths in my review to point out how, if it were my movie to make – and it wasn't – I would have highlighted some of the great work being done around the country, indeed around the world, on other, equally important aspects of traumatic brain injury in sports, and the steps that are being taken to meet the concussion challenge, was simply to emphasize the complexity of that challenge. I understand and appreciate why the movie largely presents parents an either-or choice: either pull their kids out of contact and collision sports or let them play living in constant fear that they will someday end up like Andre Waters or Owen Thomas. I just don’t happen to agree that those are the only two choices. Life is never that simple, that black and white.

I also think that, while Alan Schwarz of the New York Times deserves kudos for bringing the issue of concussions in the National Football League and other professional sports to the attention of a national audience (it obviously helped that he was writing for the Times; one wonders whether he would have gained the same fame writing for just about any other newspaper you care to name), his coverage, like Head Games: The Movie, focused almost exclusively on the work of Dr. Cantu and Mr. Nowinski and the deaths by suicide of former professional athletes. Again, while Mr. Schwarz deserves a great deal of credit for his journalism, which almost won him a Pulitzer prize, he is not the only journalist in the concussion space.

I believe that the best way to meet the concussion challenge is to take a team approach. (That my website is called MomsTEAM is proof positive of that.) In my view, it will only be when every group with a stake in making youth sports safer (parents, athletes, coaches, health care professionals, equipment manufacturers, and the national governing bodies of sports) gets credit for the essential role each plays in meeting the concussion challenge, that we will achieve that goal. As long as the spotlight remains on a single group of doctors researching a single, discrete aspect of traumatic brain injury, one with millions of dollars to spend on a top-flight documentary filmmaker to tell its story and sing its praises, there will be little oxygen left in the room to fuel such a collaborative effort.

Brooke de Lench

Publisher / Editor In Chief



Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports

Excellent review

Your review is a balanced, reasonable, rational perspective. It is based on the science and not the scare tactics that The Sports Legacy Group engage in. We visitors to MomsTeam rely on the brilliance and level and calm heads that I have come to know you by. MomsTeam continues to be the trusted source that i will turn to for years to come. Thank you for your honest review. I am sure it angered some but this reader would expect no less from you than your objective and independent thoughts and research.

Concussions- The Problem and Solutions

The concussion dialogue has grown louder and louder in this country across all of the contact sports from the professional level all the way down to the youngest participants. The research is still in high gear as there is still much to learn about concussions, the long term health impact on those that get them and how best to prevent them. Bob Cantu was an early pioneer in the research area and many others including the terrific folks at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN, the CTE research group in Boston and the brain trauma group at Children's Hospital in Minneapolis/St. Paul just to name a few. There are still far more questions than answers as to how best to treat and prevent concussions. Concussions have always been in contact sports but it appears that the symptoms are far greater than decades ago and the awareness is so very much greater today than just five years ago. It is possible that the pure physics involved in the games today with bigger, faster and stronger participants has exceeded the limits of the normal brain protection mechanisms and in order to reduce the incident and severity the games need to change. Better helmets have not proven to and likely never will moderate or eliminate the damaging effects of blows to head. There is much yet to learn but one thing we do know for certain and that is the fix is not going to be easy or quick. There are risks associated with participation in contact (collision- football, hockey, lacrosse) sports and it is inevitable that some players will be concussed. Our duty as parents, coaches and administrators is in how we educated all parties involved and how we make sound return to play decisions for the injured and recovering athlete. Hal Tearse Safety Director, Minnesota Hockey USA Hockey Associate Coach in Chief, Minnesota

Tackling A Tough Problem

Thanks for your thoughtful post, Hal. No less an authority than Bob Cantu, MomsTEAM's concussion expert from 2001 to 2006, considers MomsTEAM the "pioneer" in youth sports concussion education for parents, and, if there is one thing we have learned over the past 11 years of covering the subject of concussions it is that the more we know the more we don't know.  But, having said that, what we do know is that, if we all work together, we can and will make all contact and collision sports, including football and hockey, safer through implementation of an "all of the above," multi-pronged, multi-faceted concussion risk management program that reflects best practices in concussion identification, management and conservative return-to-play, education, rules enforcement, and risk reduction.  Thank you for your continued efforts to make the game of hockey safer.