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Steve James, director of ‘Hoop Dreams,’ on concussions and why NHL needs to end fighting now

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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In 1994, Steve James directed "Hoop Dreams," a remarkable look at two inner city basketball players chasing a professional career.

His focus in "Head Games," his latest documentary, is what happens when those careers are dramatically altered, or end, because of a brain injury sustained in competition — and how concussions could be preventing young athletes from chasing their dreams in hockey and football.

"Head Games" is inspired by Christopher Nowinski's book of the same name. Nowinski is the former WWE wrestler turned concussion activist that has led the charge on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has been found in athletes who suffered multiple concussions during their careers in contact sports.

Hockey is featured in a segment of the film, with former Philadelphia Flyers standout Keith Primeau describing his hellish experiences with concussions. The National Hockey League's deputy commissioner Bill Daly, senior vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan and concussion committee chairman Ruben Echemendia, Ph.D., are also featured.

"The NHL was very cooperative with the film," said James, whose film debuts in New York and Los Angeles on Friday and is available now via VOD through iTunes, Amazon VOD and a dozen cable and satellite companies. "They did that knowing we were going to be very critical of fighting in the film."

James believes that for the NHL to seriously combat concussions, it needs to end fighting in the league.

"Chris Nowinski will tell you that the NHL has made many strides on the ice, except the elephant in the room: the issue of fighting. And if you look at this strictly from a health issue, there's no reason for fighting to continue," he said.

We spoke with James about his new film, concussion lawsuits, the NHL and how it all affects participation in the game at a youth level.

Q. One of the lines the NHL has sold, and especially Gary Bettman, is that the majority of the concussions in the league stem from hits rather than fights. How do you square that with asking for a fighting ban?

JAMES: I don't know where the proof for that is. And if you look at some of these enforcers who died in recent years, under any number of circumstances, I kind of question some of that logic, to be honest.

Given the fact in a fight the whole goal is to knock someone out — to give them a concussion. Guys are on the ice, pounding each other in the head; they're not hitting each other in the stomach.

I think it's premature to make a sweeping statement like that when a lot of the long-term damage is only just now coming to light. These sports have been around the longest time, but for the longest time no one really looked to see what the cause and the long-term effects of playing contact sports were. Guys died way younger than they should have, but there was no connection to the sports they played.

As Reuben says in the movie: yes, we've determined that fights cause concussions. But when I asked if he had made a recommendation to the NHL about fighting, he said, "No, it's not our job to make recommendations." So, I don't know.

I'm a fighting guy, and I've always felt that if it leaves the NHL, it would happen organically. There are stats that show it's been on the decline for four consecutive seasons. Do you think the education about player safety and the effects of fighting could lead to it just slowly leaving the game?

It might. But I guess I just feel that if you don't want fighting to happen, there are easy ways to get it out of the sport.

In basketball, when they had the famous brawl at the Auburn Palace some years ago, it became so notorious because it doesn't happen anymore. Basketball used to be more violent — you look back 20 years ago, even in the era or Bird and Magic, there was more brawling that went on. They tended to break them up — the referees didn't circle the combatants and let them go — but a lot of sports were more violent. At a certain point, those leagues just decided it was something that wouldn't be tolerated and they've been successful for the most part.

Hockey hasn't taken any drastic or dramatic steps to do that. If it happens organically, that's great. But to wait around for it to evolve is irresponsible. Just do it now.

In both football and hockey, there's an old-school mindset that promotes violent plays and can deemphasize player safety protocols. How do you combat that?

I think being aware of the long-term problems with concussions in fighting. Maybe that will make a difference. Hearing the stories of former enforcers who took their lives at a young age or suffered immensely.

I'm a casual hockey fan at best. But I've always felt hockey's got a lot going for it. It's an incredible sport. Going back in the days when the Philadelphia Flyers and those brawling teams used intimidation as a way to succeed, thankfully those days are gone. So why not take the next step? Let the game be the kind of game it is in its best?

I've heard people inside the NHL say they believe that if the NHL banned fighting tomorrow, there would be an uproar from a considerable portion of the fan base and some of the players, but it would go away. Because no one wants to give up watching the game, because the game's too good. And in the long-term, it would bring more fans to the game. There's a lot of people that don't really want to watch hockey because of the fighting -- that until the sport gets rid of it, it's a detractor.

That's one of the reasons why boxing has fallen out of grace as a sport, among other reasons: Because many people, at a certain point, were uncomfortable with the brutality of the sport and couldn't sit there and keep watching.

That's interesting, because arguably the biggest threat to boxing's market share in the last decade has been MMA, which is much more violent. Let's say you take fighting out of hockey; what stops another league from popping up as the pro hockey league with fights?

They may, but it's not easy to start up a league.

But you're right about MMA. It's one of the fastest growing sports, and violence is one of the reasons for it.

I'm not saying there isn't an audience for it. But there was a time when the heavyweight champion of the world was the most identifiable athlete on the planet. Despite the growth of Ultimate Fighting I don't think we'll ever get to that point again, in part due to the violence.

Football's rise in some ways probably parallels boxing's decline. It's a sport that had much of the appeal of boxing, because of the violence, but the violence wasn't the only point of it. The appeal was broader. The goal of boxing is to give a guy a concussion. To knock him out. It's not the goal of football, but it may be the unintended consequence.

The real elephant in the room for the NFL are the lawsuits from former players with regard to concussions, and it's obviously something the NHL is watching. What impact do you think lawsuits like that might have on hockey down the road?

I don't think I'm equipped to give you an answer on that, on why there hasn't been a lawsuit against the NHL. Maybe people contemplating lawsuits are waiting to see what happens with the NFL?

At the heart of the NFL lawsuits are claims that the NFL knowingly deceived its players and knew that concussions were more serious than they acknowledged. You see it on the movie that they obscured the long-term effects of concussions with faulty and bogus studies. I'm not sure that the same things happened in the NHL.

The NHL was more proactive, early, in acknowledging concussions, even before the attention given in the last few years. There may not be a case that retired hockey players feel they can make that retired NFL players think they can make. Maybe that'll change.

What's your take on Brendan Shanahan and the department of player safety?

I think it's great. I think that it's a really good step in the right direction. From interviewing him, I think he's very serious about doing this and I like the way they do it too: Explaining through the videos exactly what the infraction was and what the punishment will be. They're not all the way there yet, but they're taking good steps on the ice, if not in fighting.

Finally, your film touches on the impact of player safety issues on young athletes, who might forego playing a violent contact sport out of concerns for their own safety. How does that affect hockey?

Keith Primeau has told me, anecdotal, that he's seen some parents pull their kids out of hockey because of concern from concussions.

I think it's too early to tell what the implications are for hockey and football. But as we understand more and more about the effects of concussions and sub-concussive blows in the coming years, then you'll see more of an impact on other levels.

If there's a determination that sub-concussive blows are almost as serious as concussions, and that an accumulation of sub-concussive blows can lead to the same effects at concussions, that could be a pretty sobering reality for these heavy contact sports.

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