Part of the romance of sports lies in the thrill of controlled, heroic brutality. Modern athletes are often likened to warriors: they sacrifice, put their bodies on the line and take punishment in pursuit of a noble cause. The rest of us — couch potatoes, season-ticket holders, parents on the sidelines — cheer for the toughest players and the hardest hits.
Steve James’s troubling new documentary, “Head Games,” reckons some of the terrible costs of modern American sports culture. Focusing on football, hockey and women’s soccer, the film looks at the widespread incidence of head injuries that threaten the well-being of competitors at every level, from youth leagues to the pros. Recent neurological research suggests that even mild and infrequent concussions can have terrible long-term consequences. Repeated impact, of the kind that is routine in football, especially, can lead to dementia and severe psychological disorders.
Guiding us through this grim medical information is Christopher Nowinski, a former Harvard defensive lineman who went from the Ivy League to professional wrestling. He is now the public face of an institute at Boston University specializing in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a brain disease that is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head, and that seems to occur with alarming frequency among athletes.
Mr. Nowinski and his colleagues explain the science clearly. Other interview subjects include former athletes; league officials; and journalists, among them Alan Schwarz, a reporter for The New York Times who has written extensively on head injuries.
“Head Games” is alternately sobering and terrifying. It is painful to watch a grown man struggle to recite the months of the year, and to hear about the shockingly high number of suicides among N.F.L. veterans with C.T.E. It is also chilling to watch youngsters heading out onto the field or the ice accompanied by the usual exhortations from parents and coaches to play hard.
Mr. James, whose “Hoop Dreams” may be the best sports documentary ever made, is motivated by a fan’s devotion as well as a journalist’s skepticism. “Head Games” gains credibility and power from compassion for athletes and respect for their accomplishments. But it also tries to open the eyes of sports lovers to dangers that have too often been minimized and too seldom fully understood.
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