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Parents of young athletes need to see 'Head Games'

Nov. 25, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

I watched a very scary movie this week. It showed brains in a freezer, packed and stacked on top of each other like a harvest of TV dinners for the apocalypse. It showed brains being sliced and pulled apart and arranged in rows like a Japanese chef with sushi rolls. It was horrific and terrifying, but there weren't any killers on the loose or deranged psychopaths with an ax to grind.

It was Steve James's new documentary, "Head Games," a comprehensive and fundamentally troubling look at the concussion crisis in certain sports and what head injuries might mean for athletes of all ages in a culture where sport is romanticized and talked about in ways that sound like descriptions of Roman gladiators or soldiers fighting in war rather than people playing a game.

"Head Games" focuses on football, hockey, and women's soccer, using athletes from each sport to illustrate the grim effects of having received multiple concussions. It's in these moments when James' film is viscerally the most disturbing because these are real athletes dealing with real, persisting problems from having been hit in the head far too many times.

There's Gene Atkins, a former NFL strong safety, in a doctor's office incapable of repeating a sequence of numbers or reciting the months of the year in order. There's Cindy Parlow, former professional soccer player, explaining how she always keeps her GPS on in her car because she routinely forgets where she is on roads she's traveled her entire life.

Interwoven with these vignettes is the medical research on the long-term cognitive consequences of receiving multiple concussions. Christopher Nowinski, the face of Boston University's Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), guides us through this medical information, while posing some very interesting questions on the sustainability of certain sports given their propensity to cause concussions, namely football.

The NFL has experienced a wealth of problems when it comes to misdiagnosing and underdiagnosing concussions, and each team is equipped with a team of medical personnel whose job is solely this. How is it possible, then, that high school or youth league football players are receiving the necessary medical supervision on head injuries when the resources available aren't a 10th of what's available on the sidelines for grown men?

Where this film soars is the interview with Owen Thomas' parents, a brutal reckoning with the fact that their dead son -- a former Penn football player who committed suicide at the age of 21 -- had CTE in his brain. This is where the cold seriousness of the concussion crisis becomes frank and unavoidable. Because what's important isn't whether there's a scientific connection between suicide and CTE; what matters is that Owen Thomas never played a down of professional football and his brain was still plagued with CTE, a disease that unequivocally alters the functionality of a person's brain.

So what's the appropriate balance to strike in all of this? How do we minimize the danger that's inherent in some of these sports, like football, while ensuring that football remains true to what we love about the game? And what's the threshold for how many concussions is too many?

"Head Games" isn't trying to convince people to not play these sports (nor does it portend to have a solution to this complicated, frightening problem). Athletes have so much to gain by playing these sports, as dangerous as they may be, but no honest person can pretend that there's also not much to lose.

The point of this documentary -- and I encourage every athlete, parent, and fan to seek it out -- is to become more knowledgeable about the fragility of brains in the sports we love, and to ultimately ask an important, fundamental question: How much are you willing to lose for a game?

"Head Games" can be rented ($3.99) or purchased ($14.99) on iTunes.

Chad Pemberton is a Marshall University graduate who follows the NFL and is writing about it for The Herald-Dispatch. Email him at pemberton@herald-dispatch.com.