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

Pulling at the heart-strings

Head Games does a good job of showing how conflicted many parents feel about letting their kids play football, hockey, and other contact and collision sports. Asked whether he would let his son play football, Penn's Eric Laudano begins to answer, but ends up just shrugging his shoulders with a sheepish look on his face. The mother of an elementary-school age football player in Chicago says all that a parent can do is hope and pray. Even knowing what he knows about concussions, former NFL player Keith Primeau says he "doesn't live in fear" of his kids being injured playing sports, and that seeing the enjoyment on their faces "is enough for me."

Once again, however, my major criticism of the movie is that, as I noted earlier, the movie ends up presenting parents with what amounts to a Hobson's choice: pull their kids out of contact or collision sports, depriving them of the chance to play a sport they love, or let them play knowing that, no matter the benefits of such sports, the risk of concussion will always be a Sword of Damocles hanging over their head. 

Hit counts

Short of banning kids playing contact and collision sports before age 14 (an absolutist position from which Dr. Cantu has retreated somewhat in Concussions and Our Kids), he and Mr. Nowinski, to their credit, offer one very practical solution (dare I say, a no-brainer, and one which I support completely): reduce the amount of total brain trauma kids sustain, especially at an early age when their immature brains, weaker neck muscles, and over-sized heads, combined with a slower rate of recovery, make them particularly vulnerable to the potentially significant long-term effects of traumatic brain injury and repeated sub-concussive blows.

Dr. Cantu and Mr. Nowinski correctly highlight the irony of the NFL being the only league that allows just one full-contact practice per week, but high school players - whose developing brains are much more at risk of long-term injury from concussion and repeated sub-concussive blows - are somehow allowed to knock helmets four days a week. There is "no way that should be happening," says Mr. Nowinski. I agree. {Editor's note and update: an increasing number of state high school athletic associations have, since 2013, begun imposing limits on full-contact practices]

Freak out

For my money, too much of the movie is spent sensationalizing the concussion issue. The soundtrack is alternatively gloomy and scary; the quick-cut montages of vicious helmet-to-helmet hits knocking athletes senseless (which subtly reinforces one of the biggest concussion myths, that most concussions involve a loss of consciousness or signs of concussions that are immediately and clearly observable by sideline personnel if they were only looking, or, in some cases, by 35 million television viewers) are scary; the language is often scary and clearly designed to instill fear in the minds of viewers and send them screaming from the theater to pull their kid off the football field.

Mr. Nowinski tells us that if he had a 6-year old playing football, he would be "freaked out."  He likens a parent who lets a kid play football to playing "Russian Roulette with their future." He suggests that we are putting our kids at "terrible risk." He asserts that, if all the concussions that players fail to report and/or that game officials and sideline observers fail to spot were actually identified, there would be so many athletes on the sideline that they would "barely be able to play the game" and that football would be "virtually unsustainable." It is clear that Mr. Nowinski feels that football is simply too dangerous to be played at all. 

Mr. Nowinski asserts that if athletes were to become educated, the number of concussions would skyrocket. But while there is some evidence to support the notion that education has increased public awareness - there has been a big increase in the number of ER visits for suspected concussion, for instance, although not hospital admissions, which have actually fallen just as sharply - there is also reason to be skeptical that athletes, even Ivy League-educated athletes, are going to suddenly start self-reporting concussion symptoms and voluntarily ask to be taken out of games if they know the risks if they don't.  Even when athletes know the dangers of concussion, as researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently found to their dismay, they don't self-report or voluntarily come out of a game.