As Concussions Mount, ‘Head Games’ Documentary Puts Spotlight on NFL’s Big Headache

"Hoop Dreams" director Steve James' movie about sports-related brain injuries competes for an Oscar as the National Football League comes under increasing fire on the issue

This week's Monday Night Football game between the Chicago Bears and the San Francisco 49ers is notable for a distressing stat: Both teams' starting quarterbacks, Jay Cutler of the Bears and Alex Smith of the 49ers, will miss the game because of the effects of concussions they suffered recently.

To which documentary filmmaker Steve James might say: "I told you so."

James's 2012 documentary "Head Games," sad to say, is becoming more timely every week. The film about the prevalence of concussions and head injuries in professional and youth sports, particularly football, paints a devastating picture of a climate in which repeated concussions have been downplayed, ignored or shrugged off for decades, despite growing evidence of the long-term effects on athletes.

Getty ImagesAnd each weekend of the National Football League season, new injuries occur that push James's subject more into the limelight. In addition to Monday night participants Cutler and Smith, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick sat out because of a concussion.

All told, more than a dozen NFL players were reported to be suffering from the effects of concussions, with two more going down on Sunday and others being tested for head injuries on the sideline.

And on Friday, in what were described as "smoking gun" documents obtained by PBS' "Frontline" and ESPN's "Outside the Lines," the NFL was reported to have paid more than $2 million to three former players after determing that football had been at least partly responsible for their brain injuries; at the time of the 1999 payments, according to a lawsuit filed by nearly 4,000 former players, the league was denying that it had the evidence to link concussions with brain injury.

"This has changed the way I look at the games," said James, a Chicago native who told TheWrap that he still watches the Chicago Bears play.  "I'm much more aware of the tackling, and of anything that looks like it could produce a concussion.

"I'm much more aware of what happens when a guy gets up and he's shaking his head and it looks like he's seeing stars. And a lot of times, nothing happens: He just goes back to the huddle."

Veteran filmmaker James has covered the world of sports in the past, most notably in his classic 1994 film "Hoop Dreams," which prompted a huge outcry and an internal AMPAS investigation when it failed to receive a nomination for Best Documentary Feature.  

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He wasn't planning to make a doc about head injuries in sports until executive producer Steve Devick approached him with the book "Head Games" by Chris Nowinski, a former professional wrestler who has become an expert on the traumatic brain injuries suffered by athletes. 

"It wasn't an issue I was looking to make a movie about before I was approached, but It certainly fit for me," said James. "It was something I followed in the media and had real questions about myself, as someone who had played and followed sports throughout my life. In a way, it was sort of an ideal project for me."

The film's focus is on professional and youth football, but James deliberately expanded it to include hockey and other sports, despite knowing that it would really take a television miniseries to cover the entire topic.  

"I think what's really needed is something that attempts, in 90 minutes, to help you understand how this became a public health issue, and what we know as it relates to not just pro football, but to amateur sports and pee-wee football," he said. "I see it as a film whose real target audience is probably sports fans, but especially parents of amateur athletes and amateur athletes themselves."

Several of those parents and amateur athletes are featured in the movie, including parents who clearly want their children to continue playing organized sports even after concussions.

"It's a tough issue for a lot of people," James said. "On one hand you can look at some of the parents and say, 'What are you doing? Your daughter's had four concussions already, and you're still letting her play and you're counting on her to tell you if she gets a fifth?'

"And even a pediatrician like Tina Masters, whose main business as doctor now is dealing with concussion patients, has a son who's had three concussions playing hockey. She's still letting him play, and she tortures herself over it."

But parents and young athletes are simply following the lead of professional athletes like Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who played on Sunday played despite suffering two concussions in the past three weeks.

Clark rationalized his decision in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review by saying, "People make this more dramatic than it is … I've only had two [concussions] and I've been playing football since I was 5. There are people with eight and 10 who still continue to play."

The NFL was only "minimally cooperative" with his film, said James — but the league is under increasing fire for its treatment of head injuries and has recently taken moves to pull players from games more quickly, diagnose concussions more accurately and treat former players with long-term brain damage.

Is it lip service, or real progress?

"I think you're seeing a combination of the two," said James. "It is lip service and public relations on the one hand, but I think they do recognize that if they don't legitimately tackle this issue in some fashion, the sport could become more marginalized. I don't think there's ever going to be a time in the near future when football goes away, just like boxing hasn't gone away.

"But football sees that if they lose parents who let their kids play football at the amateur level, they're in trouble. And for the first time on record, participation in high school football declined this year. It didn't decline a lot, but it did actually go down."

"Head Games" is one of the 130 docs currently being considered by voters in the Academy's documentary branch; a 15-film shortlist is expected to be announced in early December. James hasn't had much luck with the Academy in his career to date: "Hoop Dreams" was famously snubbed because, according to an internal investigation, a small group of voters manipulated the scoring system to deny it a nomination.

In the aftermath of the "Hoop Dreams" debacle, the Academy changed the rules for selecting documentaries. And last year, after James's acclaimed doc "The Interrupters" was likewise left off the shortlist, it changed them again, eliminating the small committees that gave individual voters too much power to kill a film's chances of making the shortlist.

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"I do take some satisfaction that in both cases my films played a role [in the rule changes]," admitted James. "I think 'Hoop Dreams' was in some ways the straw that broke the camel's back, because there had been several really high-profile films in previous years, like 'Thin Blue Line' and 'Roger and Me' and 'Paris Is Burning' and 'Crumb' where people were like, 'Wait, how could this be?'

"And the same thing happened last year, and 'The Interrupters' was part of it, along with a few other really terrific films that I was surprised weren't in the mix."

He paused. "But you know what? In the case of both 'Hoop Dreams' and 'The Interrupters,' here's the other thing:  Both films got a tremendous amount of love beyond the Academy Awards. Would I love to be at the Oscars and have a shot at it? Yes, absolutely. But the fact that people were so upset at 'Hoop Dreams' and 'The Interrupters' not getting shortlisted or nominated means that the films really did have an impact out there. And I love that."

James now awaits the fate of "Head Games" at the hands of doc-branch voters. And, he admitted, he still watches his Bears play every weekend.

"But when I do see a hit that's problematic, it makes me feel guilty for watching," he added. "It hasn't made me turn off the TV, though, which I think does speak to the powerful allure of sports."