Timed to coincide with the start of another season’s worth of bone-crushing, skull-smashing NFL action, and about as convincing as a 95-minute op-ed can get, Steve James’s Head Games puts football, and to a lesser extent hockey and pro wrestling, on par with boxing for sheer volume of debilitating head injuries, the long-term ignorance of which has caused untold harm to current and former players. The approach to this argument is impressively methodical: Reams of data combine with neurologists’ assessments and player testimonials to form a thorough representation of the toll being taken on athletes, which the doc blames on a tough-guy culture pressuring them to play through pain. This much evidence isn’t entirely necessary (it’s not too hard to buy the fact that significant injury could result from being repeatedly clonked on the head), but the explanations of topics like brain structure, in layman’s terms, are instructive and informative. Meanwhile, the film leaves its purposes vague: condemning the evasive history of a profit-minded organization, but praising the changes it’s made, and warning of the danger to child athletes, but never making any declarative claims on what should be done to protect them.
While Head Games is persuasive on an informational level, it doesn’t do enough to explore the human side of its subject matter, settling for brief case studies of different types of damage, from crippling depression and suicide to early-onset dementia. The lack of a pronounced personal touch seems strange, considering James’s background in ostensible human-interest stories (Hoop Dreams, Stevie, The Interrupters) and his usual gift for extrapolating them into larger sociopolitical investigations.
The player-profile footage is its most powerful asset; one scene of a retired player in his early ‘50s, struggling to remember the months of the year, is equivalent to any amount of hard data. But with so little illustration of these men’s lives beyond their injuries, the use of their pain as background fodder feels a tad exploitative. At times, Head Games feels like a super-sized news-magazine segment, and there’s the definite sense that more time could have been spent getting a better feel for the lives of the NFL and NHL players it visits, particularly their feelings about the organizations which have left them financially secure but permanently damaged.
Much of the emotional lifting here is done by Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate, former All-Ivy defensive tackle and professional thorn in the NFL’s side. Graduating in the late ‘90s, Nowinski parlayed his college football career into a brief stint as a WWE heel, until a seemingly minor ring incident left him completely out of sorts, to the point that a simple 10-minute workout would leave him with intense nausea. Nowinski eventually saw a doctor, who informed him that his wrestling injury was only the latest of the concussions he’d been suffering his entire life, events labeled “minor brain damage,” but only in comparison with the kind of major trauma that leaves people hospitalized on life support.
Nowinski’s crusade gives the film structure, but his charming, committed character occupies too much screen time, inevitably a distraction from the more tragic figures lingering at the film’s margins. The stories of these men, many of whom suffered far greater damage, remain tantalizingly untold. Short of calling for an end to the leagues that perpetuate such injuries, Head Games does everything it can to educate and advocate, providing a wealth of information in the process. Yet while it serves as a valuable primer on an increasingly relevant subject, it never pushes beyond the deluge of facts into telling effectively rendered story.