The odds are stacked against us, but we fight on in spite of them. What makes the sub-genre of sports films often so compelling is the recurring trope of “the underdog”, so often present that it’s almost a necessity of the genre. That’s not merely because it’s difficult to make empathetic a character with no struggles, but that there’s no such thing as a sports story without struggle. Robert De Niro’s unrelenting boxer incapable of learning from his mistakes in order to turn them around, even at the end. Tom Hardy’s familially dejected mixed martial arts fighter willing to let himself fall apart at his brothers’ hand, rather than go on in bitter isolation. From Raging Bull, to Warrior, to even formula 1 documentary Senna, sports films often showcase the physical damage of their characters on an equal plane with mental incapacity.
Steve James has played the sports doc game before with acclaimed basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, though that film focused more on societal restrictions in the sport rather than physical ones. With Head Games he shoots not as much for storytelling as for advocacy in spreading knowledge. The norm for such a documentary is to present facts to support a conclusion, something that could prove exhaustively informal if not given some conduit for the drama in the situation to come through. Rather than force some central figure for the audience to sympathize with, James pushes the subject itself as reason enough to express intimate concern. After all, sports are so essentially ingrained to our culture so as to touch nearly everyone watching.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few regulars to carry along the conflict, most particularly mental-injury advocate and researcher Chris Nowinski. A former football player and professional wrestler himself, Nowinski’s research establishes an easily acknowledged link between collision sports and permanent brain injury. This is an easy fact to consume, but less so to truly understand, certainly for athletes still in competition. Serious as the consequences of repeatedly ricocheting your head inside a helmet are, the desire to keep on playing the sport persists even more. It sounds crazy for one’s mental health to be so willingly put on the line every day over a game, and yet it’s something thousands of individuals recreationally or professionally do, and we happily applaud them doing.
Often when a dire issue such as this is brought to public attention the solution is to find a permanent cure to prevent it from happening in the future. Head Games isn’t dumb enough to even pretend that’s a possibility, because the only absolute solution is to stop playing most sports altogether. It’s not condensed down to simply football, also showing soccer, and more severely ice hockey. It may be nothing more than knocking a saucer across an ice field with a stick, but aggressive fighting has become an unnecessary norm in the game. It may be less dire an issue if there were proper treatment for players who receive concussions, but they happen at such a frequency that there would be too many people on the sidelines and nobody in the game.
From the perspective of somebody who doesn’t care about sports, it’s an outrage to see so many parents willingly lead their children into a game that will do serious damage to their personalities. It’s still unfair to place the blame on the parents, who find themselves painfully conflicted between protecting their children and letting them do what makes them happy. More blame is to be put on the attitudes towards the game itself. As a children’s football coach relays the story of David and Goliath to his team as a way of endearing them, the role of the coach becomes either an unenviable or condemnable one. They’re either throwing players willingly into the violent chaos, or they are put under the weight of these players’ futures. Both kinds of coach certainly exist, but there are likely more of the former than the latter.
For those who love the sport and hold a passion for it, Head Games will certainly not convert them to the opposition. They’ll still watch the games every Sunday with excitement, but perhaps with a little more concern as well. The decision to let your child participate in a sport is not one to be taken lightly, and if I have any hope for Head Games it’s that it will advise caution to any so inclined individual.
Bottom Line: Though not breaking the threshold of greatness, Head Games provides a fearful and serious context to the popular world of sports.