Film focuses on concussions and consequences
"How much of you are you willing to lose for a game?"
That's the question posed by "Head Games," a documentary about the concussion crisis in American sports produced and directed by Academy Award winner Steve James. Through interviews with doctors, parents, journalists and professional and amateur athletes across a variety of sports, "Head Games" lays out the current state of the concussion landscape, separating what is known from the unknown and helping viewers understand the issue.
"In the film we didn't feel it was our place to proselytize one way or the other on this question," said James, who won an Oscar for his 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams." "We felt like the most important thing we could do is do our best to lay out what we know, what we don't know and some of the experiences of parents and athletes, what they're going through as they try to navigate this question and leave it to you the viewer at the end to decide where you stand on this."
The film is based on the book of the same name by Chris Nowinski, the former WWE wrestler and all-Ivy League football player at Harvard and who has become a concussion activist. Nowinski has been instrumental in raising awareness about the long-term effects of brain trauma in football players and as a co-director of the Center for Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University's School of Medicine, has urged athletes to donate their brains for study. The film expands on Nowinski's 2006 book to look at the effect concussions have in other sports beyond football, including hockey and soccer.
"I think it's incredibly important to expand concussion discussion into sports other than football and especially sports that women play," Nowinski said. "It has been neglected and it needs the exact same attention because they have the same negative consequences no matter what sports you play or what gender you are."
While most casual sports fans are likely familiar with the issue of head trauma in football and hockey as those issues have received national attention through the NFL and NHL, "Head Games" sheds light on a narrative that doesn't get as much publicity -- the alarming rate of concussions in women's soccer. This story is shared primarily through former soccer player Cindy Parlow-Cone.
A four-time All-American and two-time NCAA champion at the University of North Carolina, Parlow (at age 17) became the youngest player ever to win an Olympic gold medal and a world championship as a member of the U.S. women's national soccer team. At 6 feet tall, Parlow scored more than 50 percent of her goals with her head.
Parlow suffered her first soccer-related concussion in 2001 during a Women's United Soccer Association game when she made head-to-head contact with a teammate on an attempted header. After being knocked out by that collision, Parlow saw stars on headers during practice and games. Parlow retired in 2006 at the age of 28 due to post-concussion syndrome. She will be the first female athlete to donate her brain to Boston University's CSTE for further study after she dies.
"If anybody can learn something from me -- in women's soccer I've been one of the forefront people that were known for having concussions and had a lot of concussions and I've been diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome," Parlow said. "If they can learn anything from my brain to protect other athletes, other kids, I think it's a wonderful thing to do."
In the film, Parlow candidly recounts in detail the impact post-concussion syndrome has had on her life. She had a stutter for many years and still keeps her GPS on in the car at all times, even when she's driving in familiar territory.
"I still have a lot of headaches and then I still have a lot of jaw pain," Parlow said. "Those are the two things that I mostly have. For a long time, I was on daily medication to prevent the headaches and migraines but luckily, after eight years, I was finally able to come off of those."
Parlow believes that some of the long-term impact of her post-concussion syndrome might have been avoided (or at least mitigated) by more effective management of her head trauma.
"I think once you know better, you do better. And we just didn't know better when I was playing," Parlow said. "You didn't really think twice about seeing stars after you got hit in the head. It was just part of it. I never really thought twice about it. I think now, as we educate more of our athletes, we make sure that they know the symptoms and know that it's not normal to see stars. I think that is going to help prevent future issues like I'm having."
Parlow now lives in North Carolina where she coaches youth soccer with the Triangle United Soccer Association. In her role as a coach, Parlow can utilize many of the lessons that weren't implemented when she played.
"Any time I see any sort of impact on the head, I immediately sub the kid out," Parlow said. "And if I have any concerns whatsoever that they could possibly have the smallest of concussions, they're sitting out regardless ... I educate my players and make sure that they know the symptoms and try to have an open conversation with them so that they feel comfortable coming to me and letting me know if they're having any issues."
Dealing with the athletes represents one challenge of handling concussions. Managing parents who want to know why their child isn't playing is another matter.
"I've been in quite a few difficult situations where the parents were very angry at me for holding a kid out due to a concussion," Parlow said. "I've explained to them why I have them sitting out. And I tell them I may be more sensitive to this than the normal coach because I have a lot of experience with this. Then I'll also follow it up with research articles to the parents so they understand where I'm coming from. And the two times that I've had parents react negatively to it, after I've sent them the research, they've come back in and have thanked me and then apologized and told me they were completely in the wrong."
With women involved in sports at much higher rates in large part due to Title IX, Parlow believes education about the risks of getting a concussion has become more important than ever.
"Sports are a wonderful thing for kids to play. They also come with risks, just like anything else," Parlow said. "It's important to be diligent and to make sure you're educated and to follow the protocols even if it means missing a big game or a big tournament, a big recruiting opportunity. Because you only have one brain. It's important to take care of it and we're not doing brain transplants. It's not like an ankle sprain where maybe you can play through an ankle sprain. You shouldn't play through a concussion.
"We're telling our athletes to be strong and to be tough, but there are certain things you don't play through and a concussion is one of those things."
Parlow's experiences as a player and coach reflect one of the key goals of the film. The filmmaker hopes parents and their children who compete in contact sports see this film so that they can have an educated discussion about the issue.
"We want parents and young athletes to be able to sit down after watching a movie like this and really talk about this issue and talk about it from a position of really knowing a lot more than they had going in about the nature of concussions, about what can complicate concussions, what can aggravate them, what can make it worse," James said. "So that they can have a real discussion of what this means for their participation in these sports."