Five questions (or more): 'Head Games' director Steve James

You might know Steve James from his documentaries such as Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters or for his work as the director of Prefontaine. His latest project focuses on the increasing awareness of concussions suffered by those who play contact sports and how those head injuries will affect the participants for the rest of their lives.

Head Games is officially in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles and will expand nationwide next month. We caught up with James a few weeks ago for his thoughts on how complex this issue is, what the NFL’s role is and whether fans should hold themselves partially responsible.

Previous Five Questions (or more):

Sept. 14: Former quarterback, author Dan Pastorini

1. This is such a complicated issue --for players, parents and fans. You talk in the movie to experts who know so much about the concussion issue but who have kids playing football and hockey. There is so much complexity here. How did you navigate the path?

Steve James: You hit the nail on the head. When I started the film, I was knowledgeable in that casual-sports-fan way. I saw this an opportunity for myself and for people who watch the game to get much more educated about what we know and what we don’t know, and what the implications are. The film doesn’t answer all of that because we don’t have answers for all that. But it’s like what Dr. Robert Cantu said in the movie when he said the public’s awareness and the concern is way up here, and he put his arm up in the air. And what we really know is way down there, and he put his arm down low. That sums it up. Ultimately, it helps people and amateur athletes and the parents of amateur athletes to navigate this process of kids playing contact sports. It’s not easy. That’s where we’re trying to leave it at the end of the movie. It becomes a judgment issue for the parents and the kids. As a parent, it’s a tough decision. You want your kids to be happy, but they can’t see the long-term consequences of their decisions. We won’t be letting our child play football but. like I said, it’s such a complex issue.

James: You see it in the movie with Tina Master, the pediatrician, no less. She’s made concussions a specialty of her practice. She knows a great deal about concussions. She treats concussion patients daily. Yet one of her sons has suffered three concussions and is still playing hockey. She’s torn up about the process. One of the surprises for me in making the movie is how intensely parents are conflicted about the issue. Parents were discouraging [former U.S. women’s national soccer team player] Cindy Parlow’s parents when she told them she needed to quit [after suffering from post-concussion syndrome]. Her parents weren’t happy about it. There are a lot of parents out there that are conflicted over what their kids love to do, but there are a good many parents who have their own failed sports dreams wrapped up in their kids and aren’t always thinking about it with a clear head. None of my kids were seriously into sports growing up, but I understand the conflict one would feel.

2. The opening scene of the movie showcases a youth football game. This is where it all begins, right? In youth football? That’s a scary thing.

James: There’s increasing knowledge, which is good. As Cantu says at one point in the movie -- and it’s not an idea shared by everyone, including the parents and coaches of the kids who are playing pee-wee football -- kids under the age of 14 shouldn’t be banging their heads. That’s not going to sit well with a lot of people, including the NCAA and the NFL. Whatever measures they’re trying to take to make the sport safer at the professional level and down the line, it doesn’t include elimination of contact football. At least not yet. But who knows where this is all headed. What happens if parents say they won’t let their kids play? At the same time, there’s the lady who says playing football keeps her young kid off the street.

James: Right. The coach of that team talks about how playing on his team brought kids together from different neighborhoods that didn’t like each other. Now, they’re teammates and work with one another. The issue of the value of sports takes on a different character when you’re talking about kids in inner-city communities whose parents have tended to see sports as more than exercise for their kids. They see it as something essential to give kids alternatives. There’s been a view that sports, more than in middle-class white communities, is that sports provides a ticket out. Not even to the pros, but to colleges, also. Statistically-speaking, it might not be significant but there’s that strong perception. That’s another factor.

3. How did the idea for this movie come about?

James: It was brought to me by Steve Devick, one of the executive producers who had read Chris Nowinski’s book [also called Head Games] and was very inspired by it. Steve played football himself in his youth and suffered a number of concussions. He had developed the King-Devick test to look for dyslexia, and that test has shown to be helpful for the on-field diagnosis of concussions. We don’t get into that in the movie because, in part, he’s an executive producer. But all that fueled his interest in this issue. When he read Chris’ book, he approached me about doing a film based on it and looking at the whole concussion issue and what we know and what we don’t know. Because I’ve been a sports fan and actively participated in sports all my life, I saw this as a great opportunity to learn more about this issue.

4. It’s nice timing with your movie coming out and the NFL pledging $30 million for brain injury research and the CDC reporting NFL players were three times more likely to get Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s. Even with all that, I don’t get the feeling most fans care about this issue, and I don’t get the feeling that most current players care about this issue. With the death of Junior Seau, will that change?

James: I think it’s got to change. Chris Nowinski would tell you that the feeling he gets talking from pro players is that a lot of them don’t want to be quoted because it’s impossible to play this game without suffering numerous concussions. They think, ‘'We’ve made our decisions and our choices, and that’s that.'' Isaiah Kacyvenski is a college roommate of Chris’, and when he first started writing the book, Isaiah didn’t want to hear about it. It’s an understandable attitude frankly because the game hasn’t changed all that much. If you go too far down that road of, '‘What am I doing to my brain?'’ you might arrive at a place where you say that either I can’t play this game or that I can’t really play it [the right way]. It’s like a soldier. You can’t think of it as a good war or a bad war. It’s a really tough one for the NFL. The attitudes are going to have to change at some place because the evidence gets overwhelming. As a sports writer, am I complicit in this? Are fans?

James: Absolutely. We all are. We love football, we follow football and we pay money to see football. Our children play football. At a certain point, I don’t think you can say to someone, like your children, that, ‘'I think football is fine, and I think you can play it all the way up through college. But if you play professionally, it’s all on your shoulders. Good luck with it.’' That’s a really faulty ethical position to take. Just as players get something for playing football successfully, we all get something from them playing football, too, as society. We bear some responsibility as well.

5. Roger Goodell and the NFL don't come off so well in this movie. How big of a problem is this for the league, especially with thousands of former players suing them?

James: It’s a question I asked of a number of people: Can you think of a world where there’s no pro football because of this issue? Everybody said, no I can’t conceive of that. It’s too important to the culture. That would be an extreme development that most everyone I spoke to didn’t think could happen. With one exception. Jason Stallman of the New York Times. When I asked him that question in the movie, he says, remember when the heavyweight boxing champion of the world was the pinnacle of sports success? Not just in this country but in the world. He was the most identifiable figure in the world for decades. There was a time that boxing was in the position that football is in today but on a global level.

Look at where boxing is today. I don’t think it’s just because of all the corruption. There’s a lot of reasons why boxing has plummeted. But at a certain level, the brutality of that sport worked against its popularity for sports fans. Right now, football is in that really great spot of being a violent sport but is not being perceived as that violence being its sole purpose. The whole purpose of boxing is to give somebody a concussion. If football gets to that place, if that’s what people can take away from the sport, who knows what the future of that sport is. Like Stallman says, what if parents decide they don’t want their kids playing football? It’s an open question. I love watching football myself. But I look at it a little differently now having done this film. It’s a lot harder to take the unmitigated joy of just watching a football game that I once did.

As Cantu says in the movie, they need to study the brains of players who had long careers and who don’t seem to have this [type of brain damage]. We need to learn a lot more to know how widespread the problem is. I still don’t think fans care at this point. Maybe this movie will begin to turn the tide.

James: It’s not a film for the NFL or for the athletes. It’s for everybody else.

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, and subscribe to our Pick-6 Podcast and NFL newsletter. You can follow Josh Katzowitz on Twitter here: @joshkatzowitz.

Our Latest Stories