Monday, January 11, 2016

Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas

I didn’t grow up with a television and too far north to be affected by the SEC and college football.  I just never understood the appeal, even when my mother started becoming a fan.  Then I met a man who loves the sport and I promised him that I would give football a try.  For two years I followed the sport, was sitting in front of the television on Sundays, even chose my favorite team.  I studied the game, learned the rules, rooted for my team all the way to the Super Bowl the first year.  The following year, even though my team didn’t go all the way, I was able to root for the Giants.  I am from New York, after all, so why not?

Then, after two years, Rob said it is okay for me not to watch anymore because I simply wasn’t enjoying the game.  I would get very distressed any time I saw one of the players get hurt.  Rob would reassure me by pointing out when a hurt player returned to the field and tried to do the same when they did not, when an injury would keep them from playing for a week or more.  We argued about these things.  He would say they get paid a lot of money.  I’d argue that these young men could not understand the risks of what they were doing.  He would say they know they can get hurt.  I would insist that kids in high school and college think they are invincible, that “it” can’t happen to them. 

We never did reach a détente and I just ignore the game now altogether.  And after reading this book, I’ll have to really bite my tongue.  Here is the review I shared on amazon.

Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas looks at the work of Dr Bennet Omalu, the forensic neuropathologist who took the commonly understood idea of boxing’s “punch drunk” into other fields of full-contact sports, the National Football League, in particular.  His discovery of what he called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) continues to have repercussions in sports. 

After writing an article for GQ magazine, Laskas was encouraged to write a book length version of her exposé.  There are times when her book reads more like journalism than narrative nonfiction.  There are, however, other times when the author humanizes her story.  She does start the book in media res with Dr Omalu appearing as a witness in court, testifying against his former mentor, before backtracking to the doctor’s childhood in Nigeria, education, and how he ended up in America, studying the brains of corpses.  While this is a dramatic way to start the book, Dr Wecht’s appearance in court has nothing to do with Omalu’s research or the NFL.  But you don’t find that out until the twelfth chapter.

Of course, by then the reader is invested in Omalu’s story.  For me, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the Big Business of the NFL and the ways they manipulated the public, using their tax-exempt millions to control research, and gradually admitting Omalu more and more.  His struggles with depression and desire to not merely discover the truth but to disseminate it, ensuring that those who need to know will know the truth and full implications of what he has discovered.  He is both humble and determined, willing to take a back seat and let others speak out. 

For all the occasions when Laskas' journalism style distance the reader from the events on the page, there are moments that are emotionally surprising, especially the final chapter which serves as the perfect denouement to a fascinating story. I would love to believe that football fans would read this book and invest their time and energy into other less brutal forms of entertainment.  I’d love to believe parents would find the slim chance at fame is not worth the physical risk to their children.  I’d love to believe that this book, which will soon be a movie, would make a significant difference. Maybe it didn’t change my opinion of football but maybe it will change someone’s opinion.  I have to believe that even small ripples of change will have larger, far-reaching effects.  Effects that will result in people redefining what they define as entertaining and not merely in new developments in protective sports gear.

I really wish this book and the movie will make people rethink how much they love this so-called sport.  Will Smith plays Dr Bennet Omalu. Certainly that will inspire more people to go see the movie and maybe learn from it.  Unfortunately, I suspect that most football fans will not care because they don’t want to spoil their fun.  After all, who cares if young men are being hurt, possibly irremediably?   After all, if we can’t waste hours staring at the television, cheering on strangers to win the game at any cost, every Sunday . . . and Monday night . . . and Thursday night, whatever will we do with ourselves and our time?

What did I do when I stopped watching football?  I spent my Sundays reading, writing, drawing, listening to music, and eating some wonderful meals.  And waiting for the season to be over so my husband and I could get back to watching movies together.

You will find an interview with Dr Bennet Omalu here.
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