Jeanne Marie Laskas, author of The New York Times best-selling book “Concussion,” visited Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) last week, drawing a crowd of more than 200 employees to hear first-hand the sequence of events that led to her book and the subsequent Hollywood movie starring Will Smith.
"Concussion," released in 2015, was based on Laskas' 2009 GQ Magazine article “Game Brain,” about Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist, who, despite NFL opposition, publicized his discovery linking football players and a brain injury he coined chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The content of Laskas’ talk was particularly interesting to the Lab population because of ongoing research at the Laboratory on traumatic brain injury (TBI) and improving helmet design. The research, “Skull Flexure From Blast Waves: A Mechanism for Brain Injury With Implications for Helmet Design,” appeared in Physical Review Letters in 2009 followed by a paper that appeared in the Biomedical Journal in 2016, “LLNL team demonstrates protein damage by shock waves in traumatic brain injury patients.”
“'Concussion' is really about a relationship between two men,” Laskas said. “The first, a football player named Mike Webster, 'Iron Mike,' who won four Super Bowls (with the Pittsburgh Steelers) and never missed a snap in 10 years in the NFL. He retired at 38 and his life after football was tragic. As dementia set in, everyone gave up on him. He went bankrupt, became homeless and shocked himself with a taser to fall asleep at night. In 2002, at age 50, he died of a heart attack. In the coroner’s office, the second man: Omalu, a medical examiner born in Nigeria of humble origins, who came to the United States to pursue the American Dream.”
After coming to America, Omalu devoured education and eventually earned eight degrees and certificates. Omalu happened to be the medical examiner in Pittsburgh on duty who performed Webster’s autopsy and he could not understand why someone so young could go “crazy.” Webster’s brain looked completely normal. What was the cause of his rapid mental decline? Omalu, who Laskas referred to as, “one odd dude,” had a habit of talking to his dead patients and he made a promise to Webster that he would find out.
Despite opposition, Omalu used his own resources for further brain testing, simply because it was the right thing to do. The test results revealed significant accumulations in Webster's brain of an abnormal protein (tau) that Omalu concluded were caused by repetitive trauma. Something that, unfortunately, standard medical testing could not identify.
Not familiar with American football, Omalu humbly thought the NFL would be happy with this news, because now it would know about it and could do something. It was not.
When researching her article, Laskas noticed that Omalu’s name disappeared after the fallout from his paper and reached out to him. “No one was talking about Bennet, and sportswriters were not talking about CTE because they depended on the NFL.”
The cascade of events that ensued included congressional hearings, a 6,000 player class-action lawsuit and the book and documentary film produced by Frontline, "League of Denial." Some NFL players committed suicide and left notes asking researchers to look at their brains. President Obama and players such as Brett Favre stood up and said they would not let their kids play football.
In a city that reveres football, Omalu became persona non grata and was eventually forced to leave the house he was having built in Pittsburgh. He moved his family to Lodi where he lives today. “The crescendo last year, in the form of a Hollywood movie, was supposed to kill football,” said Laskas. “Obviously that didn’t happen. Football is the beating heart of America. Americans love football.
“The biggest surprise when that story first came out, was players’ wives from all over the country called me to say that sounded like their husbands and asked what was going on with them." That’s when she knew she had to continue.
The publicity surrounding the book and movie resulted in various committees and awareness campaigns with the goal of improving player safety. Earlier this month, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced “Play Smart. Play Safe,” a $100 million initiative to improve player health and safety, however, the first game of the 2016-2017 NFL season showed that little has changed and head-to-head collisions are still happening.
“Culturally there needs to be a shift and I think that’s starting to happen," Laskas said.
CTE and concussion concerns have brought attention to other sports, such as soccer, hockey and gymnastics. “Don’t we want to know? There’s attention now on the brain that was never there before,” Laskas said. “Let’s find out what’s going on. Let’s support the science. Let’s support the research.”
“The holy grail would be to diagnose CTE on a living person through standard medical testing,” Laskas said. “My plea is to leadership, not Goodell, not the NFL, but to the scientists, engineers and journalists to speak up if they see something stand out to them and the 'odd dudes' who say it’s not my place, but I want to, I must."
The Livermore Laboratory Employee Services Association and Strategic Human Resources Management organizations sponsored Laskas’ visit as part of an author series. After the talk, 30 Lab employees were invited to join her for a special meet and greet lunch.
Laskas gave a second public presentation to more than 250 attendees at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore as part of the Rae Dorough Speaker Series, sponsored in part by Lawrence Livermore National Security. An orthopedic surgeon from Kaiser Permanente and a representative of the Livermore Unified School District also spoke briefly about treatment and preventative measures being taken to address the problem of concussions.