Back to selection

Steve James, Head Games

Head Games

In my early teens, I played football at Moeller High School. Like most of the children who sought to play for the school that had for decades fielded one of the country’s preeminent high school football teams, the game consumed my life. For a brief period, I would have sacrificed anything to be a starting Crusader footballer. For a time, on the freshman team, I was. A mammoth child (I’ve slimmed a bit since then), although not nearly as mammoth as some of my peers, I played offensive line, where one’s head normally rams, time after time, against that of a person of roughly equal size in alarmingly violent collisions in close proximity. During a routine tackle drill one day, a friend of mine, the son of one of the varsity’s team coaches (and perhaps the school’s most ardent cinephile, save me of course) got the better of me, getting considerable leverage underneath my pads, his kinetic energy overwhelming my own despite my size advantage. He slammed me on to the unforgiving practice field, which was more dirt than grass (in spite of its reputation, Moeller never had the best of facilities). Everything went white. After a few seconds, I staggered to my feet, feeling like I was walking on a trampoline once I regained verticality. I don’t remember much from the moments after, other than the laughter of my teammates and the terse recommendation of my coach, “Walk it off, Harris.”

Although no one would have called it this during that early fall 15 years ago, I had suffered a concussion. I wasn’t right for weeks.

All of this came flooding back when watching the new Steve James film, Head Games. An informative and emotionally engaging meditation of the inherent neurological dangers found not just in contact sports like football and hockey but seemingly safe sports like women’s soccer, it arrives on this last day of summer as the country’s attention turns, as it does each fall, to football. Over a million young men will play high school and college football over the next 48 hours and many of them will suffer concussions that go undiagnosed or ignored, as they are encouraged to risk their health for fear of being labeled “soft.” The national obsession has grown more tinged with ambiguity each year. The physical dangers associated with this billion dollar enterprise have become ever more apparent as a result of the suicides of potentially brain-damaged ex-NFL players or college standouts, and lawsuits brought by physically and emotionally crippled young and middle-aged men.

Whether ex-Chargers great Junior Seau this past spring or Bears standout Dave Duerson late last winter (both of whom shot themselves in the chest, suggesting they wanted to preserve their brains for study later on), the suicides have drawn attention to a degenerative brain disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), one that studies have found a significant number of ex-NFL and college players suffer from. The likelihood is that many who still play also suffer from it, in its early stages. As memory loss grows into confusion, aggression, insomnia, depression and dementia for these players, few have known where to turn; CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem.

In Head Games, James encounters ex-football and hockey players suffering with what is surely CTE, the doctors who are studying the disease, the men who represent the corporations which profit from the labors of those who are potentially exposed, the coaches and parents at all levels who are adjusting their practices or turning a blind eye and, most harrowingly, the young people who want to be heroes on the field or the ice, no matter what the potential costs. In this powerful new film from the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, one can glimpse the soul of sports-and competition-obsessed, information-saturated, post-modern America’s fiercest contradictions concerning health and wellness. It opens today in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, and is also available on VOD.

Head Games director Steve James. (Photo by Henny Garfunkel.)

Filmmaker: You’re at a screening of the film right now?

James: Yeah, I’m in Boston. It just got underway, I literally just walked out, I’m outside this bar next to the theater.

Filmmaker: How did this doc come about? You’ve obviously long been fascinated with sports as a metaphor for society and you deftly retrace how CTE has entered the public consciousness over the past five or six years, but what was your personal interest in it?

James: Well, I was interested in the topic because I am sports guy, I grew up liking sports and I follow sports and I live in Chicago. It’s completely impossible to live in Chicago and not follow the Bears. You have no choice. If you follow sports, you can’t help but see the growing concerns and attention paid to this issue, so like a lot of casual and not so casual sports fans, I took an interest in it. However, when the opportunity came about to do this film, it came through the executive producer who had optioned Chris Nowitzki’s book of the same name. He approached me and said, “I’ve optioned this book — will you read it? If you’re interested in it as a topic for a film, let’s take a look at making it.” So I read it and I thought Chris’ book was really terrific because it really does, like the film, tell his own story but also goes beyond that to become a critique and analysis of what we do and don’t know about this issue, what is the science on it. There is a new, updated edition of it coming out along with the movie. So I just thought this was an opportunity for me to explore in depth something that really interested me and intrigued me and that I had real questions about. I think, like a lot of people, I had the feeling that there was a lot of hysteria over this issue and I was really interested in trying to understand more about what do we know and what do we not know, and just how serious this issue of concussions in sports is.

Filmmaker: Will the NFL and NHL be able to transcend this issue? One of the fascinating aspects of your film is how you show that so many athletes are at risk, not just football and hockey players, but those two sports seem to be drawing the most attention and concern.

James: I don’t know. It’s a good question. Particularly in the case of football. I think hockey has taken some much needed steps to discipline players on the ice during the game. Of course they’re still ignoring the elephant in the room, which is fighting. I have a feeling that hockey is going to deal with fighting in the near future because I think it is ultimately going to prove untenable to allow fighting to continue with the knowledge we have of what is happening to various guys’ heads.

With football, I think it’s really tricky because the NFL, according to people I’ve talked to both in the film and outside of the film, and [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goddell does generally care about this issue, it’s not just all window dressing as some people believe is the case. I really believe he does care about this issue. I don’t know if he always cared, but I think he does now and for the NFL it will always be tricky because there will be a tension between what makes for big commerce — it’s a multi-billion dollar industry — and what’s in the best interest of the guys actually performing on the field. I think the biggest threat to the NFL is expanding knowledge about the long-term impact of sub-concussive blows. If there is strong evidence, and I don’t think we’re there yet, but if there’s strong evidence that excessive sub-concussive blows can have the same impact as a concussion, than that is going to shake the foundation of what we currently consider football. I don’t think it will happen at the highest level, and this is what is the biggest threat to the NFL, it’ll happen at the bottom and work its way up, because if parents make a decision that football is too dangerous for their kids and less and less kids play football at pee-wee, junior high school and high school level, that’s where tomorrow’s stars come from. I think the football establishment is acutely aware of this. I think that they’re definitely trying to navigate this tension between a game that everyone loves which is unquestionably violent and this public health issue that not only if they’re good and ethical they need to be concerned about it but they also from a financial standpoint need to be concerned about it, because over a hundred lawsuits have been filed against the NFL because of this issue.

Filmmaker: You talk at length with several representatives from from the NHL, including ex-star Brendan Shanahan who is now in charge of player safety. Did you try to touch base with their counterparts at the NFL?

James: Yes, absolutely. The league management folks at the NFL wouldn’t consent to an interview, they just weren’t willing to do it. All they were willing to do was give us one of the co-chairs of the new, reconstituted medical committee. I was glad to have him, but I really wanted the chance to talk to league officials and they weren’t willing to do it.

Filmmaker: What was the most surprising thing for you personally that was uncovered while making the film?

James: Well, I uncovered a lot of things that surprised me and that may just speak to my ignorance of the issues at hand, but among them was that I was surprised by what we heard repeatedly from and about parents. We heard about parents who are skeptical about their kids’ concussion or about any teenage concussion. We heard from this kid, a hockey and lacrosse player, who had a concussion and it wasn’t his teammates so much as his teammates’ parents who questioned his veracity and toughness, who were accusing him of not really wanting to play anymore and using this concussion as an excuse. That is kind of shocking to hear, that parents would draw that conclusion. I think I was both surprised and even sort of touched by the struggle of parents whose children have suffered concussions but continue to play and must wrestle with that decision. In the film, we have a young woman who has suffered four concussions playing soccer and her mother continues to let her play, but they’ve made an agreement that if she suffers a fifth, that’s it, she’ll have to walk away. Which calls into question whether Mary, the young soccer player, if she suffers a fifth concussion, will she even tell her mom, if she can help it?

I think talking to [ex-NHL enforcer and possible CTE sufferer] Keith Primeau’s son Chayse, who suffered a concussion, and hear him say, “Well, Dad talks to me about it, but I really don’t want to know about it,” that was really shocking. I mean it’s a tough issue for these amateur athletes and their parents, who see the passion that their kids have for these sports and they have their own personal connection to seeing their kids play these sports and it gets very tricky. Even someone like Tina Masters, whose pediatric specialty is now concussions, one of her sons has suffered three concussions and she’s still letting him play, but she’s tortured over that decision.

Filmmaker: One of the things that really struck me was that for so many people, from the inner city mothers who find that football is a great outlet to keep their children off the streets, to someone like Keith Primeau’s son, a child of privilege who in every way wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, sports is such a powerful thing in these people’s lives that they’re willing to potentially sacrifice everything for it.

James: Well, I think that they would tell you that they’re not willing to sacrifice everything, but I think you’re articulating what is really complicated about this. It is a complication that I as the filmmaker wanted to present in the film and not make a judgement on but just allow people to express themselves and leave it up to the audience to draw their own conclusions. I hope one group that really gets to see this film are people with children who play sports and will have to make these decisions, but it’s not easy. I think that one impact this film tends to have on people is that parents of children who play aggressive, contact sports come out of it and know they really need to go have a talk with their son, or their daughter, watch this, talk about this. You know, I’m a parent, and my kids fortunately did not play contact sports, but I get it because I grew up in a sports family; it’s easy to kind of blind yourself from this because you love sports and sports is and has been such a integral part of our culture. There is something about contact sports, weather it’s the kids or the kids’ parents whose lives revolve around watching them play, that speaks to the idea of perseverance and picking yourself up, keeping going, etc. We attach all these values to these sports and you can learn those values in other ways, but they’re not vulgar as some would have and they’re deeply seeded in our culture. So it’s not going to be easy to change that culture. No matter what we find.

Filmmaker: You interviewed Dr. Ann McKee in the film, who was the subject of a fascinating article in Grantland recently. While being a scientist who’s research has uncovered much of the damning evidence regarding exposure to head trauma in contact sports and CTE, she’s also a diehard Packers fan for whom football means a great deal. That ambivalence seems to be everywhere in your film, whether its the  team physicians who would allow young players to reenter a game despite having suffered a concussion to the various school trainers who, in one of the film’s most harrowing moments, shout down someone Chris Nowitzki during one of his speeches on the topic. It all begs the question, science being as subjective a practice as any other, will there ever be enough consensus about the science for action to be taken, for logic to prevail over sentiment? That would allow for some significant change to come about how football is played or whether it is played at all?

James: I think that’s a great question and I think you’re right. Science is pray to the same subjectivity that all aspects of our lives are and it is something that we don’t often think about. Scientists can have an agenda just like anyone else which is why I take what Ann has discovered and found more serious because as she says in our film, she loves football. It’s really important for her. She doesn’t want to destroy football. At the same time her findings are pretty damning. The scientists that are out there, who do no have an anti-sports agenda necessarily, they are finding some pretty damning evidence about how widespread this issue is.

I think you’re right though, there will always be competing studies. I’m reading a book and working on a film about food sustainability and in reading Michael Pollan’s book The Eater’s Manifesto he talks about all the competing claims about nutrition in food. Whatever you want to believe you can find scientific support for it. It constantly changes. At one time it was like low fat and high carbs now its like, no, no, no you can’t have all those carbs, that’s not good. So things constantly evolve and change and where the truth lies is difficult to discern. That said, we are making progress. I don’t think that there’s any doubt that with the attention this issue has gotten and the focus the scientific community is now paying to it, that we will make progress on this issue, I have to believe that. On the other hand, regardless of how much progress we make in the next decade probably, it’s still going to come down to the judgement that every athlete and every parent has to make about what they want and what seems right to them and what are the risks and what are the benefits of playing. I don’t think we’re going to escape that.

That’s kind of what I wanted to do in the film was leave the audience with that question to contemplate themselves and if you hear from people like Keith Primeau, who still believes his kid should play hockey despite what he’s been through, despite the fact that his son has already suffered a concussion, but you also hear from  Isaiah Kacyvenski the football player who says right  now, the way things are with football, I wouldn’t be comfortable putting my son out there to play. That’s a guy who played eight years in the NFL. Football gave him a lot. It is complicated. I think the only thing you can do as a parent of an amateur athlete is try to understand what we know and what we don’t know, separate fact from fiction, and make a judgement, which of course, is ultimately true of everything. But you make an excellent point, we’re used to thinking of science as immutable and definable and once you know it, you know it, but history has clearly shown that’s not the case.


© 2016 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF