Because a Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

By Ryan Morrison

Last Friday evening I attended a screening of “Head Games,” a documentary detailing the current concussion crisis in sports. It’s been just over a week, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Steve James, director of “Hoop Dreams,” one of the best sports documentaries of all time (actually, one of the best documentaries, period), now brings us the story of Christopher Nowinski, ex-football player and professional wrestler turned author and activist. If you’ve played contact sports at some point in your life, Mr. Nowinski wants your brain.

He also wants to make clear that whatever happens in college football and the NFL is repeated by millions of children in their pee wee and high school leagues. The issue is not merely whether, as a sports fan, you agree with concussion inspired rule changes in the NFL, but whether, as a mom or dad, you’re protecting your child’s future.

As Mr. Nowinski, who grew up loving the sport, says, “If I had a six-year-old playing football I would be freaked out, and rightly so. You’re playing Russian roulette with their future.”

The science of the long-term negative impact of concussions is explained in the film so clearly that even I, a guy who passes out in hospitals, easily understood it. Brain after brain and doctor after doctor point to the same conclusion: Concussions are a very serious problem and the signs of long term damage (most notably Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that in Nowinski’s words “can make you go crazy”) have been found in even a few teenage athletes. And not just in football. Lacrosse, hockey, and even women’s soccer are also damaging our children’s brains.

So the message is clear. It’s getting the message out that’s the problem.

One memorable scene shows Mr. Nowinski speaking to a nearly empty high school auditorium that the school’s football coach prohibited his team from attending. To make matters worse, the school’s head athletic trainer stood up and accused Mr. Nowinski of scaremongering, and claimed that the dizziness and headaches his soccer-playing daughter complains about were just part of the game. Mr. Nowinski reacts with dumfounded anger, an emotion that at this point in the film, you will share.

Even those who know and understand the dangers aren’t willing to take their children off the playing fields.  Dr. Christina Master, a pediatrician specializing in concussions, discusses her ambivalence in allowing her teenage son to play hockey despite three diagnosed concussions.

In another scene, a pee wee football team coach from an inner city neighborhood expresses his rationale for having the kids in the area play football.  If they don’t spend their time playing on football teams, he says, they’d end up spending their time in less savory ways (allowing the audience to imagine these kids turning to drugs, crime, and gangs for recreation). Are these really the only alternatives – permanent head injuries or criminal activity?

Why not pass legislation requiring that children’s football be played with flags instead of tackling? I posed this question at the after-film panel discussion, with Mr. James, Mr. Nowinski, and Alan Schwarz, the Pulitzer nominated New York Times reporter whose investigations and articles about the problem led to national awareness about the seriousness of concussions and major changes throughout sports. Mr. Nowinski answered that most current legislation is focused on “return to play” rules, which determine when a player can come back to the game after he has been diagnosed with a concussion –but the injury is severely under-diagnosed. What’s needed, said Mr. Nowinski, are preventive measures, such as the one I asked about.  Currently, there is no such legislation on the table.

Another audience member noted that though the NHL had allowed its footage to be used in the film, but the NFL had not, implying that the NFL had its head in the sand about the seriousness of concussions. This, it turned out, was ironic.  Because as Mr. Schwarz pointed out, twhile the NFL had certainly done a lot of “dumb things” in the past in this realm, they have in fact done many “smart things” since, for which they deserve credit. The NHL, on the other hand, still maintains that fighting is integral to the sport and – as their top expert head-scratchingly asserts in the film — believes there isn’t enough scientific evidence to convince the league to change its policies.

Mr. Schwarz believes that real change won’t start to happen until the insurance companies step in. If they refuse to cover children’s contact sports until safety measures are introduced, schools will be forced to, well, play ball and comply.

And people are still watching football, even with the new rule changes. Though folks complained at the outset, as Mr. Schwarz put it in the film, there’s nobody unable to watch football today, saying “There’s no head slaps anymore? That ain’t football. Why don’t we just put a skirt on ‘em?”

He’s right. I was one of those guys complaining, and turns out, no, I don’t really need to see hits on defenseless receivers, The games are just as fun to watch while not maiming the people who play them.

So if any of you out there are still whining, quit it. Take a step back, realize you’re the grownup, and accept that we need to protect our nation’s children. Fair?

“Head Games” is playing now at select theaters.



4 Responses

  1. L.M. says:

    Safety first! I honestly can’t believe how ignorant some people are. Too many people, as you pointed out so well, are burying their heads in the sand about such a serious topic. I agree, that new safety rules should be put in place.

  2. Laurent says:

    Give me a break. In Europe people play soccer and rugby without helmets. They ride bikes without helmets. Nobody is dying. Nobody is brain damaged. Maybe here in America you should learn how to play ball (and not just jump on each other) and how to ride a bike properly.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I find lots of things mystifying about America’s obsession with football but honestly, the reluctance to put measures in place to protect children from possible brain damage is one of the most ridiculous things I have heard about.

  4. Flavian says:

    Children can also get hurt skateboarding, roller skating, skiing. There’s also a childhood obesity epidemic in this country so I’d say they’re also hurting themselves by sitting!