The Crash Reel is a documentary about snowboarder Kevin Pearce—the thrills of his intense rivalry with Shaun White that almost took him to Olympic gold, and the spills of his life-changing crash on December 2013 that left him with a severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The film isn't an advocacy type of issue film—it's a narrative type of documentary with twists and turns and emotion and drama (grab a box of tissues to watch when it premieres tonight on HBO). But during the making of the documentary, I learned so much that we launched a campaign called #LoveYourBrain to spotlight a range of initiatives designed to address needs around traumatic brain injury and safety in action sports. Here's what else I learned:
1. Even pro athletes don’t know what to do when they hit their head
We were shocked that even though extreme sports pro athletes routinely suffer major concussions, they don’t know what to do when they hit their head. The message about concussion awareness is getting through to school-based coached sports, but if there’s no coach around, do you know how to tell whether or not to go see a doctor? Joe, part of the team that worked on The Crash Reel, was able to save his friend’s life because he knew to take him to the hospital immediately. It’s also important to wait enough time to heal after an injury before returning to sports or to regular life. We were so inspired to help others learn more, we created this infographic.
2. I knew nothing about traumatic brain injury
There are 1.7 million Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) in the United States every year, and 250,000 to 400,000 veterans are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with TBIs. It's the "signature injury" of these recent wars because of IEDs. However, it's an "invisible injury" often without visible wounds, so we don't see who is suffering from it. It's also invisible because it's hard to pull apart whether symptoms such as moods or impulsivity are coming from the injury or the person. And for the person with a TBI, it's even harder, because the brain may not be telling its owner how injured it is. This was the case with Kevin. In the film, we see him struggle with his family because he wants to get back to the sport he loves even though doctors have told him that if he hits his head again he'll die. It's hard to know when passion ends and impaired judgement begins.
3. Teenagers are effectively brain-injured
Neurologists joke that young people are effectively brain-injured because their frontal lobes—the sensible judgement and planning department of the brain—hasn't developed fully yet. Which helps explain why less than 50 percent of 18-25-year-olds wear helmets and feel invincible. So we partnered with mountain resorts to pilot a #loveyourbrain discount scheme which incentivizes helmet use by giving discounted lift tickets to those wearing helmets. Because young snowboarder’s brains don't like being told what to do, but they do like discounts.
4. Many extreme sports athletes don't have health insurance
We couldn't believe that despite the extreme risk of catastrophic injury, paralysis, or death, many pro athletes don't have insurance. Many don't even see the point of it and think it’s cheaper to pay bills as they go. Speaking to one athlete’s manager after her tragic death, he still maintained that it was right for her not to pay the $100 for travel health insurance, which would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. It’s also important to have the right kind of coverage. Kevin learned the expensive way that he wasn’t covered for sufficient outpatient or rehab costs.
5. Athletes will sometimes have sponsorship contracts that forbid them from discussing any injuries
So it seems like athletes aren’t really getting hurt, but what’s really happening is that they aren’t allowed to appear and talk about it. You can watch the “crash reels” which are their gnarliest crashes assembled for YouTube rubbernecking. We wanted to make The Crash Reel to look at the reality of a crash instead of the glamor. Watching people getting hurt has always made for entertainment (Greek tragedies, Roman gladiators). But where is the line? Have the X Games become too like the Hunger Games? For me, athletes should at least be allowed to talk about what they are going through. I believe the great strength of the movie is Kevin’s honesty.
6. Too many athletes are getting hurt and killed
This past January, we were invited to be the first ever movie to screen at the X Games. Then, snowmobiler Caleb Moore was killed in action a couple of days later. We didn’t want the movie to be so topical and prescient. Statistics are hard to come by, but at least 11 action sports stars were killed in 2011. It’s even harder to know how many more young people have been inspired to do their own jackass stuff at home and been hurt or killed. After our screening at the X Games, an athlete got up and asked, “What is our responsibility to ourselves, to one another, and to the kids who look up to us?” We applaud that question and want the sponsors and contest organizers and athletes to step up to lead the conversation about what can be done to protect athletes.
7. People with Down Syndrome can be well aware of their disability and can be extremely eloquent about it—and everything else, too
If you’ve ever wondered whether with people with Down Syndrome are aware of their disability, meet David Pearce, Kevin’s brother with Down Syndrome—or as he prefers to call it, Up Syndrome, because he is “an Up kind of guy.” David has a habit of saying what everyone else is thinking, which is a superb dramatic device as well as a tremendous gift to his family. His mother Pia, whose PhD in Education has been put to good use in raising her four sons, explains that he can be so tuned-in because he’s focused on emotion rather than cognition. I hope anyone who has someone disabled or differently-abled in their life, or a parent learning of a child’s diagnosis, will see this film.
8. How a functional family works
We’ve all seen dysfunctional families on screen, but have you ever watched a family so remarkable that it doubles as a parenting class? The Pearce family give us a script for a family intervention, teaching us to stick to telling people how we feel, and how much we love them, instead of giving them advice about what they should or shouldn’t do.
And there's more. I learned that it's possible for me—a non-snowboarding scaredy-cat female—to make a movie that is simultaneously a snowboarding movie, an anti-snowboarding movie, and a movie that is not about snowboarding at all, but about passion and how to live and how to dig deep and accept disability and embrace change and be a family and be an athlete and be an inspiration.
The Crash Reel airs July 15 on HBO at 6 p.m. ET. visit our website for more about how to get involved with #LoveYourBrain www.thecrashreel.com
Photo from The Crash Reel Instagram