Q&A With Filmmaker Steve James

Q) What inspired you to want to do this film?

Like many casual – or not so casual – sports fans, I noticed the increasing attention that the issue of concussions was getting in the media and found it disturbing but also confusing. I wondered just how serious this issue really was. So when the opportunity came along to do the film, I jumped at it. Especially once I read Chris’s book HEAD GAMES, which not only told his personally compelling and inspiring story, but also really laid out many of the questions at the heart of this public health crisis.

Q) How did Chris Nowinski's experience with concussions help tell the story in the documentary?

One might ask, had Chris Nowinski not experienced some serious concussions, would there even be a story to tell? I expect that at some point the issue of concussions would have come to the forefront regardless, but there’s no question that Chris was the catalyst. His determination to understand what was happening to him and then his decision to make it his cause, had a great deal to do with us understanding all we do today about this issue, even though certainly other athletes, doctors, journalists and activists have also played important roles.

Q) How integral was Alan Schwartz' series on football concussions in the NY Times to developing the idea to make a film about the topic?

Alan’s work on this issue has been widely praised as key to raising the public awareness of this issue and getting the attention of the NFL and other professional and amateur sports leagues. And of course, as the film makes clear, there was a direct link between Chris’ work and Alan’s writing. For this reason, it played a central role in my own education on the issue but also became an important story element in the film.

Q) What was the process like to find the athletes who would talk about their concussion history?

Like any film, we started with a list of athletes we thought would be important to talk with, but it evolved as our understanding of the issue deepened as well as the direction of the film became clearer. At first, we thought the film might be more about football, professional and amateur. But once we decided to expand the scope to include hockey and soccer, and really focus more on young athletes, then our priorities changed. So, for example, talking with Keith Primeau’s son who plays hockey and had suffered a concussion became just as important to us talking to Keith, who played for 15 years in the NHL.

Q) Why did you expand the scope of the documentary to include sports other than football such as soccer and hockey?

Because so much media attention has been focused on football – professional football especially – that many people have the impression that this is overwhelmingly a football issue. So as my understanding grew, I felt strongly that this film needed to be broader, not just in terms of sports, but also in terms of really looking at sports at the amateur level since the great majority of participants will never become professionals.

Q) What do you think the reaction to this film will be from other athletes on both an amateur and professional level?

We’ve gotten a bit of a preview of that from some private screenings we’ve done with professional athletes, coaches, and parents and their kids who play sports. And what we’ve heard is that the film is both scary and necessary. They told us they really learned a great deal about concussions and appreciated the fact that the film attempts to be clear about what we know and don’t know and doesn’t fan the hysteria that has become too prevalent in much of the media. Parents in particular have said that the film really makes them think long and hard about their children and contact sports, which is precisely want we want the film to do.

Q) Can a film like this help to change the perception of concussions and what they are doing to our children?

I believe this film can educate people more than anything. The problem as Dr. Robert Cantu says in the film is that our awareness, and fears, are quite elevated, and yet the scientific knowledge is still quite low. The film makes this clear, while trying to inform people of what we do know. By the end, we try to raise the questions that coaches, parents and athletes need to be asking themselves, but now hopefully with more knowledge and understanding.

Q) Did you discover anything startling in the filming of the documentary that you were surprised to find or somehow changed your opinion about concussions?

I learned so much making the film. I probably thought at the beginning of this film that the cases we read about involving player suicides constituted rarities that get too much attention. I wondered for the majority of athletes just how serious concussions really were. I still hope, sincerely so, that really damaging concussions will prove to be the exception but I realize now what Chris says when he says that every smoker doesn’t need to die from lung cancer in order for us to know how bad smoking is. And given that CTE can look like and be connected to other illnesses – Alzheimer's, ALS, Parkinson's, Dementia – it’s very possible that this has been an epidemic hiding in the shadows for a long time. Perhaps the most surprising, yet completely understandable revelation for me was the struggle parents and young athletes go through around their involvement in these sports. Despite even multiple concussions, well-meaning and caring parents still find it very difficult to remove their kids from sports that are their passion. And sometimes the parent’s passion, too. And the young athletes themselves – they often really don’t want to know too much about this because they love sports so much. But ultimately, ignorance is not bliss when it comes to this issue.

Q&A With Author and Concussion Activist Chris Nowinski

Q) What was it like working with filmmaker Steve James on the documentary?

Well, I grew up playing high school basketball near Chicago in the mid-nineties, so Hoop Dreams was holds an important place in my memory and my heart. I have an enormous amount of respect for Steve James as a filmmaker. It was an honor for him to tell my story and the stories so many people who have been fighting to get the concussion issue the attention it deserves. On a personal level, we spent enough time together that I was lucky to get to know him a bit. He’s a great guy with a wry sense of humor. At the end of the day, even though I was in the room for so much of the filming, it’s fascinating to relive your life through the lens of an artist.

Q) Can a documentary like this help to change the perception of concussions?

Complex scientific information requires the right packaging to make it interesting and memorable. Steve James is one of the world’s best storytellers, and he makes a complicated story easy to understand and to care about.

Q) How important is it that the documentary expands the concussions dialogue beyond football to soccer, wrestling, and hockey, among others?

I chose to write about football exclusively in 2006 because in my opinion football had the clearest problem and the NFL leads the culture of toughness in America. If football took concussions seriously, everyone else would have to as well. You can’t say that about any other sport – it would not have worked in reverse. However the concussion problem is just as significant in other sports, and just as important for women as men. So I am glad Steve James expanded the scope of the movie so that we could look beyond football into every sport we allow our children to play.

Q) What should audiences take away from the documentary?

I think audiences should take away from this movie a new appreciation for their brain and a new appreciation for life. The stories of the concussion and CTE have been hidden for decades because it was not something you talked about at parties, and the victims preferred to suffer silently, and often alone. To be born with a fully functioning brain is a blessing, and audiences should recognize that there are very few things worth risking our mental health for. Sports should not be one of them, so I hope audiences walk away thinking deeply about the choices they make for their children, and I hope this film creates advocates for the clear change that is needed at the youth level.