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Telander: New documentary ‘‘Head Games” is a football horror film

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Updated: October 20, 2012 6:27AM



‘Head Games’’ is coming to town.

And what a proper title that is.

While we the public fret about bad NFL replacement officials and why our favorite college team is/isn’t playing up to snuff and how the Friday night lights are looking (if you have a kid playing high school ball where teachers and coaches are not on strike), head games are going strong.

Bells are getting rung. Ball carriers are getting ‘‘blown up.’’ Young men are being blasted. Subconcussive hits are occurring on every play at every level of football.

And the head is still in the middle of the shoulders.

That is ultimately the biggest issue, whether overtly stated or not, in the documentary ‘‘Head Games,’’ a disturbing look at the permanent brain damage that can be caused by the violent sport of football.

Oh, and not just football.

Featured in the film are former hockey, soccer, boxing and wrestling athletes who are not the people they once were, before the blows from their sport.

The head. The place where our humanity starts and ends. The head cannot withstand brutal damage.  Wound it again and again, and there will be hell to pay later in the form of headaches, memory loss, personality change, brain atrophy, possible Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and other terrifying mental issues.

It’s worth noting that a lot of the people discussed in ‘‘Head Games’’ have committed suicide as a result of their brain trauma. And the film was mostly completed before former NFL safeties Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling shot themselves to death.

The film, which was directed by Chicagoan Steve James, the famed director of ‘‘Hoop Dreams,’’ is nothing less than horrifying when taken straight as a bitter pill of knowledge.

It’s not that the facts are new. I know or have spoken to or have written about many of the characters in the movie. Boston University neurology professor Dr. Ann McKee, New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz, Sports Legacy Institute leader Chris Nowinski, medical examiner Bennet Omalu and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell all have been topics for many journalists who have written about the head-trauma dilemma in sports.

But film is different from print.

To see the things writers only describe in words is stunning.

Heads ricochet off turf, shoulder pads, ice, forearms, elbows, other people’s heads and, most gruesomely, the armored helmets worn by fellow football players as weapons as much as for protection.

At the start of the film, a pee-wee coach fires up his tiny charges on the sideline by telling them the story of David slaying Goliath with a hurled stone.

‘‘This is your rock,’’ he says.  ‘‘That helmet!’’

And so, as the visuals and graphs and microscope slides progress, almost as in a science class, we start to think of the only two possible responses to the message:

Who can let his child play this game? What will football become in the future, if it exists?

‘‘By the end, we try to raise the questions that coaches, parents and athletes need to be asking themselves,’’ James says of his film, ‘‘but now hopefully with more knowledge and understanding.’’

The trouble is, that knowledge is not nearly enough to make an informed decision.  At least a decision other than, No way will I or any of my loved ones play a head-banging sport.

As Nowinski warns about parents who let their kids play football, ‘‘You’re playing Russian roulette with their future.’’

Helmets do little or nothing to prevent the brain from sloshing and tearing inside the skull.  All kinds of half-baked and even dangerous ‘‘concussion-prevention’’ kits and equipment are now being sold.  As you can imagine, the gold rush of brain-damage profiteering is on.

But when you hear McKee say, while looking at a slide of a sliced-up former player’s brain, ‘‘That’s the memory component. We’ve got shrinkage,’’ you pause and wonder how anyone can play — or vicariously find joy in watching — football.

Then McKee, in a white lab coat, says in clear perplexity, ‘‘I’m a huge football fan. I can’t help it.’’

So am I.  So, likely, are you. 

So what do we do?

Do you want your child to be another Jim McMahon, a famous Super Bowl-winning quarterback, who, at 53, can’t remember where he’s going without Post-it notes from his girlfriend? Or do you want him sitting inside with a computer?

‘‘I didn’t want to tell people what to do,’’ James says.

Oh, if he only had.



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