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Documentary examines concussion issue in sports

by Dan Rosen

When award-winning director Steve James began his pursuit of documenting the cause of concussions in sports and how athletes, families and professional sports leagues deal with the issue, he knew football and the National Football League would be his jumping-off point.

""It's our goal to eliminate as many needless injuries as we can and to be very clear and educational when we make those decisions. That's why we do the videos.""
-- Brendan Shanahan

That's not a surprise considering James' reference point was former Harvard defensive lineman turned professional wrestler Chris Nowinski's acclaimed book about concussions in football -- a personal account mixed with other firsthand stories that have given credence to the important topic of brain injuries and their long-term effects.

James, though, was hoping to reach a broader audience of sports fans and participants with his latest documentary, "Head Games." He was hoping to spread the word on the issue of concussions and the science behind Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma.

"There are other sports where this is a serious issue," James told "Some, like hockey, are not surprising."

James, who in 1994 won awards for his film "Hoop Dreams," made sure hockey and the National Hockey League were prominently featured in "Head Games" because of the physical nature of the sport. What he found was a league willing to acknowledge the problems that can arise from concussions and one actively seeking applicable solutions.

James credited the NHL for being an industry leader in research of concussions and player safety, and added that the League cooperated fully with him for the documentary.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations and Player Safety Brendan Shanahan and Dr. Ruben Echemendia, who chairs the NHL/NHLPA Working Concussion Group, all are featured in the documentary -- which is widely available, including on Facebook, iTunes and

"Not only did the NHL give us top guys, important guys that relate to this issue, they also cooperated with us by allowing us to use footage despite clearly knowing that the footage was going to be fighting, as it relates to this issue," James said. "How can it not be and have any credibility? They knew that and they still cooperated. I give them a lot of respect for that."

Shanahan, who in the film refers to himself as the League's enforcer on player safety and has become well-known for his Department of Player Safety videos, discusses why the League has chosen to be open about the issue of head injuries.

"It's our goal to eliminate as many needless injuries as we can and to be very clear and educational when we make those decisions," he said in the film. "That's why we do the videos."

James said Shanahan's prominent role and the videos produced by the Department of Player Safety are just some of the signs that the League has taken significant steps to limit concussions.

In 1997, the NHL became the first of the four major professional sports leagues to develop a Concussion Working Group.

"I do think all the sports have a ways to go in terms of how they handle rules and discussions around concussions, but the NHL has certainly been more forward-thinking on this issue than football," James said. "To have a guy like Brendan Shanahan, who is poring over the video, is a significantly positive step. The NFL really counts on referees on the field to make those determinations and only under the pressure by very obviously problematic hits does it go higher.

"I think the fact that Brendan Shanahan has taken that role and taken it very seriously is a very positive thing. Daly was obvious and candid about the League's view [in the film]. He basically said there is going to be brain injuries, no way around it. I think it was great he was willing to state it."

In addition, "Head Games" features the story of former Philadelphia Flyers captain Keith Primeau, a power forward who had his NHL career cut short early in the 2005-06 season when he suffered his fourth reported concussion.

Primeau said in the film that the team doctor told him he never would be cleared to play in the NHL again.

"I was relieved," Primeau said.

Primeau and his family, specifically his teenaged, hockey-playing son Chayse, are shown prominently because James said he was fascinated by their story.

Here is Primeau, a hockey player turned hockey dad who is living with lingering effects of concussions, trying to steer his athletic children in the right direction -- all the while burdened by the thought that his kids could suffer similar brain injuries playing sports.

Primeau's story, James said, hits at the heart of the issue right now in youth sports as parents continue to question their kids' participation due to the effects of concussions.

"He's such a thoughtful person on this issue, very expressive on the issue," James said of Primeau. "The fact he has two sons that play hockey and we got to (use) one of them in the film points out a lot that is difficult for parents who have kids that play sports -- especially for ex-athletes who want their kids to get the same experience and pleasure even if they don't make it to the NHL."

The film ends with Primeau saying three of his four kids have suffered a concussion.

"My daughter asked me the question, 'Daddy, should we not play if we can get hurt?'" Primeau says before the credits roll. "I said, 'Well, that's your decision. You don't have to play if you don't want, but there is no guarantee in life.'

"I think that's the right answer. I'm not 100 percent sure."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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