I wish there were a better way to talk about “Concussion Protocol,” a five-and-a-half minute short about head injuries in football from data artist Josh Begley, but the words that come to mind all sound like puns: It’s stunning, dizzying, devastating—a film that leaves an imprint on your brain. I first watched the movie Thursday, and I’m still reeling from the impact.
Begley’s project, produced for The Intercept and Field of Vision by Oscar winner Laura Poitras, is as uncomplicated as it is profound. As Begley noted when posting his film on Twitter, he documented “every concussion in the NFL this year”—179 in all, if you’re only counting regular-season games. He then stitched that footage together with music by Samora Pinderhughes, speeding up some scenes of injury and slowing others down. Begley also reversed a bunch of them in time, so the action flows in rewind. That’s all it is, and yet this simple premise—concatenation plus controlled distortion—yields a product that’s sublime.
The movie starts with a wide receiver on the sidelines, his pupils wide and empty. It’s the Broncos’ Bennie Fowler III, playing in the season’s second week, and you can’t really tell, at first, that the footage is running backwards. Then Fowler’s body rolls upwards from the turf, briefly gripping someone’s waist as he tries without success to stop his fall. The tape rewinds again and Fowler’s on the ground, in the midst of a prior stumble.
Begley says in his artist’s statement that he turned time around to “defamiliarize the familiar,” and to create the conditions under which football fans could reappraise the sport’s brutality and “see some of this violence anew.” This method works, in part, because the backwards footage makes you feel like Bennie Fowler, discombobulated and confused. As on-field events play out in the wrong direction, they merge into a different narrative: Fowler’s actions look deliberate in reverse, as if he’s first decided to sit down, and then to lay back on the grass in contemplation. When at last you see the play during which he banged his head—a jump ball in the end zone—it plays out like a dream. Fowler levitates above the pylon, soaring like a spirit, and the football launches from his fingertips. It’s like he’s thrown it back to the line of scrimmage, undoing all the damage that would follow.
These reveries recur throughout the film, as rival timelines where no one’s getting hurt. We see Baltimore’s Mike Wallace in spasms on the ground, and then, as if by magic, he’s on his feet and a helmet drops onto his head. Another helmet bounces twice and rolls around before it jumps to save Joe Flacco. In Green Bay, a flying mouth guard dives between Davante Adams’ teeth. Later, a yellow flag rewinds into the hands of a referee, as if the penalty was overturned. And in the film’s most striking sequence, Kansas City’s Justin Houston seems to moonwalk over to a fallen Danny Amendola, crouch over him and offer help.
These hallucinations last only a second before they fall apart. You know which way those helmets really bounced, and what sent the mouth guard flying to begin with. The speed with which two players seem to spring apart illustrates the force of their collision. And you can tell that Houston didn’t really crouch to tend to Amendola—that he was really getting up to celebrate a monster hit, and then to walk away. These images of undoing quickly show us what’s been done.
I say this all as something of a skeptic when it comes to news stories about concussions. While I believe the game poses major risks to players’ mental health, I think the rhetoric around the crisis has often been exaggerated. News reports would have you think that almost every football player will end up as a victim, and yet the stats suggest NFL retirees aren’t any more susceptible (and may be somewhat less susceptible) than other men to dying young, committing suicide, or ending up depressed. I also believe the furor over head injuries has crowded out concern over other, more apparent (and disabling) long-term effects of playing football. Players who give up the game to save their brains are touted in the press as heroes, while those who retire to prevent a life of chronic joint pain and arthritis are more or less ignored.
That’s why I’ve been disappointed, on the whole, by films and documentaries on this topic. Head Games (2012) mangled facts. League of Denial (2013) stacked the deck. Concussion (2015) trafficked in destructive myths and made a hero of a complicated figure. Print coverage of the crisis often makes the same mistakes, drawing big conclusions from a small supply of data and touting unsubstantiated stats. I’m appalled, in many ways, by how the league has obfuscated and avoided facts about concussions—and yet I’ve also been dismayed by all the poor reporting on football and head injuries. Yes, there’s a problem here. But even so, the NFL is not as bad as Big Tobacco.
We don’t just tend to over-read the data on concussions. We’re also prone to zoom in too close on anecdotes. On Friday, the New York Times ran an essay from Emily Kelly, wife of a former safety for the Saints and Patriots. It’s a harrowing account of disintegration—the story of a man in his early 40s who has ended up emaciated and terribly depressed. Yet there’s no way to know how, exactly, his experience relates to the concussions or sub-concussive hits he sustained while playing in the league. The same can be said for all the other, awful tales that make their way into the papers: The hockey enforcer who overdosed; the Hall of Fame linebacker who shot himself in the head; the tight end who hanged himself in prison. While there’s every sign that trauma to the head can lead to long-term, psychiatric problems, we still don’t know the true prevalence of CTE, or—more importantly—the relationship between having neurofibrillary tangles in your brain and developing debilitating problems in your daily life.
“Concussion Protocol,” by contrast, doesn’t push beyond the limits of the data, nor does it make too much of anecdotes. Rather, it explores the space between them. Some of Begley’s other projects have been more numbers-driven: He’s created mobile apps, for example, that send you push notifications for every drone attack or killing by the cops. These projects work to amplify a dire set of stats, and force their meaning into consciousness. On the surface, this is what he’s tried to do for head injuries in the NFL: A recent league report lists 281 concussions for this year, including ones suffered during preseason games and practices. (At one point the film collapses scores of injuries into a frenzied, high-speed montage.)
This illustration of a number isn’t so compelling on its own. What does that statistic even mean? Some in the press have noted it’s risen 15 percent from last season, but if you compare it to the year before, it’s only spiked by 2 percent; compare it to the year before that, and it’s up by 36 percent. I mean to say it’s hard to know what to make of this single measure, which fluctuates a lot from year to year, and for which the long-term trends are indistinct. (We know players were more inclined this year to diagnose their own concussions, which sounds a bit like progress.)
Begley’s movie takes the number as a tool for seeing football in a novel way, and for prying out its moral and aesthetic implications. In one sequence, the movie shows two young, black athletes—the 49ers’ Matt Breida and Adrian Colbert—kneeling on the sideline as their fallen teammate writhes. It’s hard to miss the fact that this is Colin Kaepernick’s former team. Kaepernick led the way in kneeling-for-the-anthem protests of police violence—a protest that the nation’s president would call “disgraceful.” Now here are players in 49ers uniforms, once more on their knees, but reacting to a different kind of violence. It may not be a protest but it’s solidarity in suffering.
There’s no clear lesson here, and no instruction as to what it means—just a bracing juxtaposition. Begley’s film doesn’t argue; it transforms. In a podcast for The Intercept, the host asked Begley what he wanted people to take away from his video. “The honest answer is that I’m not sure,” he said. “Ultimately it’s for the players to say what the game should be, because they’re the ones subjecting themselves to the violence of that game … but I just want to be clear-eyed about what it is that I’m seeing.” His haunting portrait of the violence on the field, and the loneliness of getting hurt, will change the way I’ll watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. It should change the way you watch it, too.