Perhaps the most resonant scene in Head Games—the new documentary about brain injuries in sports released on Sept. 21—is a neurologist's evaluation of former Saints and Dolphins safety Gene Atkins. After he is unable to repeat a sequence of six digits, the 10-year NFL vet is asked to name the months between January and June. He begins answering: "January, May, April...." He's then asked which month precedes June. "July," he says, his gaze unflinching.
Inspired by the 2006 book of the same name—written by former Harvard defensive lineman and WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski—the film chronicles the rise of concussion awareness in recent years. While much of the information is not new, director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) makes it compelling by attaching faces to the issue, which he approaches from multiple angles. He begins with Nowinski's own story and weaves in those of former NFL players Atkins and Tim Tyrrell, a 51-year-old ex-running back who, at one point in the film, forgets an anecdote in the midst of relating it.
James shifts the film's focus between the plight of pros and that of young athletes and their guardians, including Chayse Primeau, the teenage hockey-playing son of 15-year NHL veteran Keith Primeau (who retired in '06 due to head injuries), and the young son of a Philadelphia pediatrician—a specialist in sports medicine—who continues to play hockey despite multiple concussions. James also spends time with the family of Owen Thomas, the Penn football player who committed suicide in 2010, and whose brain revealed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that may be associated with repeated head trauma. "It's not really a film for fans," James says. "For me, it's a film for amateur athletes and their families ... who really have to make some very important decisions these days about participation in contact sports."
In the movie, Boston University neurosurgeon Robert Cantu—the co-director of the school's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy—emphasizes the disparity between the concern in the media about CTE and the lack of science on how to treat the condition. Yet even with the increased level of awareness, symptoms of head injuries are still under-reported by athletes at all levels in order to avoid being held out of play. James captures this dilemma in the interview with a mother of a 15-year-old soccer player who warily lauds her daughter's toughness. "She might not tell me," the mother says of potential concussion symptoms. She then turns toward her daughter to ask, "Right?" The girl, who has already suffered four concussions, and jokes on camera that she will someday experience early-onset dementia, illustrates the raison d'être for James's film: She shrugs.