Jeanne Marie Laskas


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Concussion Summary

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Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas is part true crime thriller, part medical mystery and part biography, and follows one Nigerian doctor in his work studying the brains of A-list celebrity football stars, and how his increasing knowledge about traumatic brain injuries and the damage caused by repeat concussions can lead to chronic pain, disability, and even death. The research threatened to completely dismantle the American institution of the National Football League, and caused dramatic changes in the field of sports medicine and professional athletics.

Laskas’ book is focused on Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born American emigrant who works as a forensic pathologist in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Omalu is a board-certified doctor in four different fields of brain study – anatomic, clinical, forensic, and neuropathology – and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable physicians in the study of anatomy and death. His boss is a celebrity medical examiner named Cyril Wecht, whose celebrity and ego sometimes get him into hot water with the press. By contrast, Omalu is a calm, stoic, and introverted doctor with a passion for his work as a medical examiner. The last thing he wants is to make waves. However, compared to his boss, who is a so-called medical examiner “rock star,” Omalu is dogged in his work, and ultimately more of a rockstar in his investigation of the dead than Wecht can ever be.

Laskas meets up with Omalu as he is on the brink of a particularly bizarre autopsy. He has been charged with the task of examining the dead body of 50-year-old Mike Webster, a Pittsburgh Steeler who died suddenly and tragically in 2002 of what many assumed was a heart attack. Before his death, Webster exhibited a number of bizarre medical symptoms, which Omalu hoped to get to the bottom of. Webster appeared to have something resembling early on-set dementia, and was forgetful and had strange mood swings. Omalu, a practiced physician, examined Webster’s brain and found that he was likely the victim of a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disease caused by frequent concussions that Webster experienced during his long career as a football player.

Laskas spends much of the book describing Webster. As a fellow Pittsburgher who was tasked with airing this story for GQ, she understood the machismo of the Steelers and their fans. Webster was a burly white guy, a true Pittsburgher, who played in more games than any other player in history – a total of two hundred and twenty games over the course of his career. He was admired by his team and by his city, and Laskas makes it clear that despite his work as a player, he was let down royally by the organization that was supposed to be looking out for him, and for all players – the National Football League.

When Omalu testified about his new knowledge about the detrimental effect of many sustained concussions on the brain, he was nearly thrown out of the courtroom. The National Football League, rather than embracing the new evidence and taking as many precautionary measures as possible to protect their players, adamantly denied the research and its legitimacy and assured the public that Webster had in fact died of a heart attack. Omalu attempted to write about his research in medical journals, which also denied him the opportunity to speak out about CTE. He gained more notoriety than he had ever imagined, but despite this, his only goal was to make this knowledge known so that all athletes, from professionals to children, could protect themselves from this debilitating disease.

Laskas writes with persuasion about the NFL’s inability to properly handle this issue with their players, and about Omalu’s determination to make his research known. Ultimately, Laskas’ article, her book, and a subsequent movie about CTE and Webster’s condition starring Will Smith made the research widely known to the public.

Jeanne Marie Laskas is a journalist, author, and professor. She has written a number of books, including Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work, to her most recent book To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope. Concussion was published in 2015, to great critical acclaim. Laskas works as a contributor to GQ and New York Times Magazine, among other publications.