- Associated Press - Thursday, September 20, 2012

CHICAGO (AP) - The North Side Raiders look like little men as they take the field for their Pee Wee football game in the opening scene of “Head Games,” their shoulder pads and helmets dwarfing the rest of their small bodies.

Only the Raiders aren’t little men and, the film argues, the games they’re playing could do irreparable damage to their brains.

“We’ve got to get past this, `Little kids involved in a pillow fight’ mentality,” concussion guru Chris Nowinski said. “If parents knew what I knew, they would not be tolerating a lot of things in the sports world that they are. We are clearly exposing children to needless risk, and we’re not upset about it. And we should be.”

The concussion crisis that has engulfed the NFL and NHL comes to the big screen Friday with the release of “Head Games,” a documentary by “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James. Inspired by Nowinski’s book by the same name, the film blends a stark, sometimes graphic portrayal of the science of concussions with personal stories of parents and athletes struggling with head injuries’ potentially devastating effects.

“Head Games” opens Friday in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The 90-minute film also will be available on demand at iTunes and Amazon, as well as from some cable and satellite providers.

“Before making the film, I had the typical fan’s knowledge of the issue and shared concerns about its potential seriousness. But I also thought that perhaps it was all being overblown a bit by the media,” James said in an email to The Associated Press. “Making the film helped me realize that while there’s so much we don’t know, it’s an issue that deserves to be seen as a huge public health issue.

“It’s why we chose to make a film more focused on informing an audience versus my usual approach, which is to focus more on the life or lives of a very few people.”

By now, most people know sports has a concussion problem. Research has shown that repeated blows to the head can lead to brain trauma, with a study released earlier this month finding that NFL players were unusually prone to dying from degenerative brain disease. The NFL faces more than 140 lawsuits from almost 3,500 former players, including at least 26 Hall of Famers, who allege the league conspired to hide the dangers of concussions.

Former NHL MVP Sidney Crosby was essentially sidelined for 14 months because of concussion-related symptoms. Enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, tough guys who made their livings by dropping their gloves, all died in the summer of 2011; Boogaard’s brain showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that’s been found in other former fighters.

But that drip, drip, drip of information doesn’t have the same impact as a 90-minute tutorial on concussion awareness.

“That’s where I felt it was most valuable, (that) they were able to present it with the personal touch for anyone,” said former NHL All-Star Keith Primeau, whose career was cut short by concussions. “Nobody wants to sit and listen to a guy in a lab coat explain the dangers of brain injury. So the format it was presented in, I was not just pleasantly surprised, I was overwhelmed by it.”

The film includes extensive interviews with Primeau and Nowinski, whose own history of concussions led him to write “Head Games” and found the Sports Legacy Institute. It also features interviews with concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu and parents struggling to decide whether to pull their children out of the sport they love following a head injury.

As easy as the information in the film is to absorb, its details are unflinching, including:

_ Dr. Ann McKee, who along with Nowinski and Cantu is a co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University’s School of Medicine, slicing through someone’s brain with what looks like a gigantic butter knife.

_ Tissue samples from former players’ brains with what look like charring, or cigarette burn holes _ a telltale sign of CTE.

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