New movie tackles head injuries in sports

By Kyle Rich

As fall and winter approach, sports fans across the nation are saying goodbye to baseball and embracing the football and hockey seasons. While blows to the head are an inevitable part of both sports, professional and amateur leagues have taken measures to reduce concussions and other head injuries because of the increased attention given to their damaging effects. An upcoming documentary brings this issue to light.

Steve James, a Chicago-based filmmaker who directed the award-winning documentaries “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters,” is working on a new documentary called “Head Games” that deals with the issues surrounding head injuries that occur in sports. The documentary was partly inspired by Chris Nowinski’s 2006 book of the same name. Nowinski played football at Harvard University before he went on to a career with World Wrestling Entertainment. Like many other athletes, a concussion forced him to retire, and he was diagnosed with post-

concussion syndrome.

After discovering a lack of awareness about the condition among coaches, athletes and sports doctors, he went on to write his book and now serves as president of the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization that addresses public ignorance of sports concussions.

The documentary will have a limited release starting Sept. 21, and will feature Columbia’s Bruce Sheridan, chairman of the Film and Video Department, who serves as a producer on the piece. Animation sequences for the film were done by

Columbia students, James said.

“It’s a topic that you can’t escape these days,” said James, who is also a 2012 Columbia honorary degree recipient. “It’s in the papers on a regular basis. When the opportunity came along to do this film, I just thought it was a great chance to get my arms around it for myself, and for other people out there who have more questions than answers.”

Alex Valadka, a neurosurgeon and vice president of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, is skeptical of the attention head injuries have gotten recently.

“This whole increase in public awareness is rather interesting, and a lot of this was driven by a few neuropathologists,” Valadka said. “There have been some interesting observations that do suggest further investigation, but a lot of people made quite a leap, speculating that every child who played football isn’t going to graduate Harvard because they may have gotten a concussion they weren’t aware of.”

Sports concussions are a tricky topic because there is heavy speculation from the media and lack of concrete medical evidence, according to Valadka.

The mere definition of a concussion is also up for debate.

“Right now we have what we define as a concussion, and to some degree, it’s an arbitrary definition,” James said. “One of the things that is becoming more clear as people study mild traumatic brain injuries is it may be very possible that people are sustaining damage well short of what we define as a concussion, called subconcussive blows.”

Professional football has been under the most scrutiny. The NFL faces labor dispute lawsuits because thousands of former players may have long-term injuries, and it recently implemented new safety regulations that will become

increasingly strict.

While much of the media attention goes to the biggest and best players of the game, those playing at lower levels deserve attention, too, James said.

“We are such a sports-crazed country in terms of how much we love to follow our professional sports teams,” James said. “As you move down the level from professional to collegial, to amateur, the attention drops off.”

While football has a reputation of being the most dangerous sport neurologically, it doesn’t produce the most concussions, according to data gathered from U.S. hospitals

in 2009.

“In terms of the most concussions, the most prevalent sporting activity is cycling,” said John Iwanski, director of Member and Public Outreach. “After cycling, the next most prominent is football. Baseball and softball are [third].”

While James hopes to raise awareness, it seems he knows who he wants to see his movie.

“I think this film speaks most clearly to parents and amateur athletes in terms of helping them understand what we know and what we don’t know, and some of the struggles they go through around this issue,” James said.