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'Head Games' review: Ouch. And I mean that in a good way.

Medical ResearchFootballMoviesFictionAlzheimer's Disease

*** (out of four)

At some point your mom or dad probably said, “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” knows what I’m talking about.

Many people participating in activities without play guns know what that’s about, too. In the sobering documentary “Head Games,” Chicago-based director Steve James’ (“Hoop Dreams”) converts former Harvard defensive tackle Chris Nowinski’s book into a study of increasing evidence about the long-term effects of sports-related brain trauma.

Boxers and football players aren’t the only athletes endangered by brain trauma. Those who play soccer, hockey, lacrosse and other sports also fall victim. And the threat to child competitors gets the least amount of attention, the movie shows. Kids don’t want to be taken out of the game, and there’s no expert on the sidelines to spot a possible concussion.

Through interviews with former athletes, doctors, family members of athletes who committed suicide and New York Times reporters who wrote stories on studies linking NFL players’ brain trauma to dementia, “Head Games” collects disturbing confirmation of the issue. The movie also presents athletic directors who want to dismiss the problem, and testimony from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as he attempts to deflect it.

In the past few years, the NFL has made an effort to protect its players and penalize those whose behavior puts others players at risk. Featuring original music by Billy Corgan, “Head Games” barely scratches the surface of these initiatives, nor does it accumulate data for how many former players (not mentioned: Dave Duerson or Junior Seau) serve as examples of victims whose altered brains tragically turn them into different people. Also worth further consideration: Parents who prevent their kids from participating because of what some call a public health issue.

James structures the movie around a kids’ football game, positioned as David vs. Goliath to ponder the notion of an opponent that cannot be beaten. The movie acknowledges the fallibility of athletes we might not want to recognize, and the seemingly obvious danger of repeated bashings to the head that have become an accepted dimension of sports with risks we’re still working to understand.

“Head Games” asserts this as a problem that isn’t going away and, especially for those who suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is virtually guaranteed to get worse.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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