It's a topic most Pittsburghers know well: serious head injuries sustained by professional athletes. We treasure the "inspirational" stories — Sid Crosby is back! — and shrug off the sad ones, like learning after his death that Steeler Mike Webster's brain was severely damaged. The slow path to making fans and players (pro and amateur) aware of concussion-related injuries and their potentially devastating and lifelong effects (such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is the subject of Steve James' illuminating documentary.
James (Hoop Dreams) lets Christopher Nowinski be his guide. Nowinski played football for Harvard and was a professional wrestler, and his own injuries led him to research the under-reported damage to players' brains, as well as the resistance by players, coaches, leagues and parents to acknowledge any danger. Professional players who had career-ending brain injuries weigh in, as do parents, sportswriters and, most compellingly, doctors, who explain how the brain isn't designed to take repeated hits and how the damage is not only permanent, but can "spread" over time. ("It's your brain," says one doctor, mystified that anyone would risk damaging it.)
Dissected diseased brains; athletes suffering from depression, dementia, memory loss and other brain trauma; footage of immobile athletes after a hit — this is scary stuff. Yet toward the end of the film, James highlights the disconnect between knowing that certain sports are potentially dangerous and most Americans' fervent love of athletics (playing or spectating). A hockey player forced into retirement lets his teen-age son play, and the kid relishes full contact; the pediatric neurologist lets her kids play rough sports; the head-rung teen-age soccer player won't quit.
James also underscores this ambivalence by intercutting his muckraking with footage of a kids' football game. In it, tiny boys from the inner city clearly benefit from the teamwork and discipline the game requires, but also hit the ground head first with alarming frequency. Obviously, football isn't the only way to foster maturity in kids, but try changing our culture, which assigns sports, even (or especially) violent ones, such lofty attributes as leadership, perseverance and courage. That fans tolerate the physical damage wreaked on the players — and which players, coaches and leagues tacitly accept — is the twisted price paid for both these enduring myths and our entertainment.