By Ken Reed

Last week, I wrote about the upcoming Will Smith movie Concussion. The movie is about the NFL’s attempt to cover-up research and statistics regarding concussions, along with the league’s effort to discredit a highly credible whistleblower, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who discovered the first case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of an NFL player (Pittsburgh Steelers’ perennial All-Pro center Mike Webster).

Omalu’s work, of course, was critical to the development of Concussion. However, the inspiration for the movie was actually a 2009 feature article in the magazine GQ written by Jeanne Marie Laskas called “Game Brain.”

It was this article that brought Omalu’s work — and the NFL’s deception — to the forefront.

Laskas began her article like this:

“Let’s say you run a multibillion-dollar football league. And let’s say the scientific community—starting with one young pathologist in Pittsburgh and growing into a chorus of neuroscientists across the country—comes to you and says concussions are making your players crazy, crazy enough to kill themselves, and here, in these slices of brain tissue, is the proof. Do you join these scientists and try to solve the problem, or do you use your power to discredit them?”

Well, by now almost everyone knows which way the NFL chose to proceed.

That doesn’t make Laskas’ article any less powerful. It is definitely worth the read — especially before you see the movie Concussion.

Omalu wrote a research paper after examining Webster’s brain for the peer-reviewed journal Neurosurgery. It was ridiculed by the NFL’s crack Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, which was led by a rheumatologist named Elliot Pellman. Yes, a rheumatologist was heading up a committee on the brain! The committee members, none of whom was a neuropathologist like Omalu, said the paper had “serious flaws.”

It was then that Omalu knew what he was getting into. The NFL was going to protect its multi-billion dollar industry at all costs, including the health of its own players.

Laskas described Omalu’s reaction to the NFL’s tactics this way:

“Omalu did not like the education he was receiving. He felt he was learning something very ugly about America, about how an $8 billion industry could attempt to silence even the most well-intentioned scientist and in the most insidious ways. He was becoming afraid. Friends were warning him. They were saying, ‘You are challenging one of the most powerful organizations in the world. There may be other things going on that you’re not aware of. Be careful!'”

Concussion is ultimately a story about greed and ego-driven decisions. The parallels to the tobacco industry’s denial of the dangers of smoking in the 1980’s is eerily similar, as Laskas writes:

“[I]t would be like the tobacco industry in the 1980s—everyone saying cigarettes caused cancer except for the people making money off cigarettes.”

CTE can eventually take away an athlete’s independence, dignity, freedom, personality, and life. For the NFL, that apparently isn’t too big a price to pay. At least it wasn’t until the shades were pulled back on the NFL’s “cover-up and discredit” strategy by strong people like Omalu and Laskas.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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