Keep Your Head in the Game


I’ve written before here how, unlike some progressives, I don’t reject modern professional team sports as brutal and violent, even if many and most especially boxing, football and hockey undoubtedly are. I do so from what I consider a genuinely liberal point of view that even if such forms of entertainment aren’t what I follow – though I can enjoy watching all three – if others like it that’s hardly for me to wholesale condemn such team sports. (I suppose there’s even a streak of the Libertarian notion of personal freedom in there too, though I not just reject but fear that political philosophy’s economic policies.)

But the recent documentary film Head Games makes a compelling case for serious changes in professional, school and youth team sports. It’s based on the book of the same name name by former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler Christopher Nowinski, and examines how concussions suffered by players of high-contact sports and even such low-contact ones as soccer can often lead to a medical condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

It’s something seen for some time in what’s been termed as “punch drunk boxers.” Some of its effects are glaringly evident in Mohammed Ali for many years now. But the damage caused to the brain by blows to the skull suffered in sports are far more pervasive than previously thought.

But research conducted by brain and injury experts over the last few decades has shown that it can be found in a range of sports. When Nowinski started suffering from some of its symptoms, he became an activist devoted to preventing such injuries and further scientific and medical studies of its origins and effects.

At its worst, the condition can lead to depression, dementia, rage, suicide by its sufferers and violence to others. The head traumas that cause it can begin in youth sports and are hardly limited to the most competitive big league sports. Thanks to Nowinski and the scientists and doctors who focus on the injury, even the organization most threatened by recent revelations of how widespread the problem is, the National Football League, has at least begun to acknowledge and address the seriousness of the concussion problem.

That has already led to improving protective gear and how some sports are played. What the movie makes plain is just how easily and early the damage to the brain can happen. Since the study of the condition is still in its infancy, so are any changes that may result. But as awareness has grown at least those athletes who do suffer from the condition are now getting care and help.

The film does an excellent job of showing the human side of the problem in a sober yet affecting fashion. At the same time, it also makes the biological and medical aspects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy understandable to the average viewer. While not at all being alarmist it nonetheless – pardon the pun – packs a punch and sounds a wake-up call that are likely to have far-reaching effects on how many sports are played in the future. As such, it raises the prospect of far less brutal and violent team sports in the future, reversing a trend towards tougher and harder-hitting play is professional and high profile sports in recent years. Although societal aggression and violence are ginned up from a complex cluster of factors that makes it a stretch to blame sports as a source of such problems, on the other hand making modern sports less physical in damaging ways might well have some positive influence on society.

As a primer in this emerging issue, Head Games is valuable, smart, informative and engaging. It’s a must for both sports fans as well as those who decry the violence that signals what appears to be an evolution in how games are played.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2013

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