'Head Games': Concussions Now and in the Future

This appears to be the story of concussion in sports now, with some facts emerging and some myths remaining, with science jostling against culture, pride against worry.

Head Games

Director: Steve James
Cast: Chris Nowinski, Alan Schwarz, Ann McKee, Robert Cantu, Isaiah Kacyvenski, Keith Primeau, Cindy Parlow-Cone
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Variance Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-09-21 (Limited release)
"Football is the perfect game for the country America used to be."

-- Rich Cohen, "A Journey to the End of Football"

On Sunday 14 October, the Redskins' Robert Griffin III played a magnificent game against the Vikings. Not only did he pass for 182 yards, but he also ran for 138 yards, including two touchdowns. Fans and teammates are ecstatic. And so it appears that the coaching and medial staff who decided he should play just seven days after suffering a concussion were right. Says the quarterback, "I told the team, I wasn't going to leave them hanging."

It's impossible not to love Griffin's resolve and his brilliance. But even as we're thrilled by his performance, we might also consider what's happening here, how a player with a concussion was back on the field so quickly, and also, how the team reported or understood the injury. We might even ponder uncertainty about procedures regarding the concussion: while Fox Sports' Jay Glazer says the organization is facing a "hefty fine" for its misreporting of the injury on 7 October, USA Today writes that the team is "unaware" of an impending penalty.

Such confusion, such lack of awareness, might be understandable, given the NFL's changes to its head injuries protocol, as well as its public campaign to showcase that new protocol and $30 million donation to NIH for brain injury research. While these measures may be designed to assuage increasingly worried parents, and so ensure an ongoing population of young players, or contend with the lawsuit brought by some 2,000 former players (including the recently deceased Alex Karras, they also make visible the risks of concussions.

These risks need to be more visible. And so do the NFL's stated and unstated stakes, for instance, its interests in both its profits and its players. Indeed, the lawsuit looms, with the potential to become "bigger than the bounty scandal," with regard to bad (PR) for the League. Even as the NFL appears to be policing team management, coaches, and players, the policing remains uneven, in part because injuries remain undefined. As Kent Sepkowitz puts it, "The NFL is treating a traumatic brain injury as if it were a sprained ankle."

The NFL is one very high-profile sport dealing with concussions (which has been serving as a kind of catch-all term for the problem at hand). But it is hardly the only one, as other sports and other age groups are affected by decisions about naming and treating such injuries. Most recently, Dale Earnhardt is taking two weeks off from racing following two concussions in six weeks. has constructed a timelineregarding the Penguins' Sidney Crosby's concussion and effects, James Harden sat out last season following a concussion suffered at the elbow of Metta World Peace, and the Giants' first base coach Roberto Kelly is out at least two games in the current NL Championship series after he was concussed during batting practice.

The discussion of head injuries in sports is extended as well to non-professional leagues, including those involving children, from soccer to Pop Warner Football, opening up at least some discussion of how a sport might be played to reduce risks. This discussion -- layered and convoluted, tentative and anxious -- is at the center of Steve James' Head Games. Now in theaters and on demand, the documentary offers an introduction to what's at issue, including the problem of how to gather and disseminate helpful information. As the NFL's slow response indicates (as a symptom more than a cause), even recognizing the problem has is a problem has been a slow process.

Darryl Young, coach for Chicago's Near North Raiders, a kids' football team, first appears on the practice field, advising, "Safety first, safety first!" "Prior to last year," he reports, " I had very little knowledge of concussions. You know, there were some statistic that 85% of the concussions go undiagnosed because people look at 'em as just bumps or bruises to the head." His recent education has led him to restructure practices, to train his players not to hit with their heads. Now, when someone looks like he's had a concussion, "under no circumstances is he going back out to play. We let him know, 'Hey, good job, take it off for the rest of the day.'" As Young speaks, you see children who look almost like they'd be blown over by a wind, their giant helmets and shoulder pads teetering on tiny bodies with skinny legs. The images underscore that the boys are tiny and vulnerable, not nearly prepared to withstand a head trauma.

Focused on football, hockey, and women's soccer, the film takes as its point of departure the campaign by Christopher Nowinski, a former defensive lineman at Harvard as well as a former wrestler. His own injuries initiated his study and resulted in a book, also called Head Games. Nowinski notes that during his two sports careers, "I had repetitive concussions for 19 years, but had never had this conversation before about what a concussion was." Now working with Boston's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Nowinski is making the case for more study of head traumas, their long term effects, as well as treatment and at least a modicum of prevention.

If it's well known that injuries to children's heads are especially perilous, the film proposes, too often young players and their parents remain unaware of same. The movie offers a brief and disconcerting look-back at the history of head trauma as an idea, as when football players were called "dinged" or boxers were deemed "punchdrunk," before it lays out some science. This impressed the New York Times' Alan Schwarz when he first read Nowinski's book in 2006: "It was the footnotes that blew me away," he says.

The film makes such notation part of its storytelling, as Nowinski visits with doctors and researchers, or participates in a conference call with experts at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Robert Stern, Ann McKee, and Robert Cantu, speaking with the wife of a former boxer, who suffered from problems with memory, organization, and violence directed at his family, before he committed suicide in front of his wife. After the doctors explain that he suffered from a "structural disease," not a psychological one, she's relieved but of course, still traumatized. "I was so angry with him," she remembers. The team hopes that more understanding of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) will help victims and their families to cope with their lost or changing capacities.

For a scene showing people on the phone, this one is startlingly painful: Dr. McKee leans onto her desk at one point, listening; Dr. Stern tries to console the wife: "This is a guy who was a great father and husband, until he became a different person." As Nowinski notes, this part of the job is especially difficult, for the point of such calls is to ask family members for access to their loved ones' brains. He monitors the news and other forms of notification in order to find potential donors.

In addition to following Nowinski's work, Head Games also offers up case studies, stories of hiding symptoms and consequences, stories of ignorance and frustration and joy in playing. Nowinski's college teammate, Isaiah Kacyvenski recalls walking to the wrong sideline after a hit, a story that's funny in another context, horrifying here, as he reports repeated injuries then and effects now. Olympic gold medalist and former soccer player Cindy Parlow-Cone estimates she scored at least 50% of he goals with her head, and had at least 100 concussions "where [I've] seen stars." Now, coaching girls, she 's looking for other ways for them to play the game.

Keith Primeau, a 16-year NHL veteran, appears in TV game footage hitting opponents and the ice, and recalls how players and coaches would consider concussion a "phantom injury," hard to see or name. "The beginning of my demise was my second concussion, in 2008,'" he says (though it's hard to guess how many he suffered that went undiagnosed). "My wife said I didn't look well," Primeau says, and after a fourth documented concussion, the Flyers team doctor determined he should stop playing, and since his retirement, he's noticed changes in behavior, headaches and head pressure, or feeling lightheaded or irritable.

Now, he and his wife face the dilemma posed by their son Chayse's desire to play hockey. It was cool having a dad who was "that tough," the boy tells James. His sense of how to be has been shaped in part by friends' positive responses to the YouTube videos that show his dad hitting opponents hard. "If I have to get in a fight," Chayse asserts, "I will, it builds character." James asks, "So when your dad talks to you about concussion, you'd rather he not tell you too much?" Chayse laughs, sort of, as he answers no. James asks one more question: "Does he know that?" Chayse shakes his head, "No."

This appears to be the story of concussion in sports now, with some facts emerging and some myths remaining, with science jostling against culture, pride against worry. Players and parents and fans take pleasure in sports, multibillion-dollar industries are built on them. The head games here are ongoing, complicated, and variously invested. They're dangerous and they're lucrative. But it's good to keep clear on who's risking what: players risk their health and their very lives, in futures hard to imagine when they're eight or 12 or 24. Head Games means to change those futures, for players and sports alike.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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