Published by Random House on November 24, 2015
Genres/Lists: Non-Fiction, Science/Technology/Psychology, True Crime
Read synopsis on Goodreads
Buy the book: Amazon/Audible (this post includes affiliate links)
Since being released late last year, Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas has made quite a splash. In addition to the book, it has become an award-winning movie – one that I saw not long ago. Having seen the movie, I thought I knew what I was getting into when I finally decided to pick up the book but I soon learned that the movie did not do justice to it (as is usually the case). Yes, the book is about a doctor who, toiling away in obscurity, stumbles upon a brilliant discovery about the minds of former NFL players, but it’s also about Dr. Omalu – his childhood, his fears, and how he navigated being thrust into the limelight.
It started with an accidental discovery, a blip on a slide containing a slice of Mike Webster’s brain. Curious, Bennet mulled over the potential causes and implications and settled on an answer: football. Webster’s participation in America’s (arguably) favorite game left him brain damaged. So much so that it affected him while he was alive and could only be diagnosed after he died. Shocked that this type of injury, which was common in boxers, had never been diagnosed in a football player before, he consulted his trusted mentors and went public with his findings -Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). His certainty that the NFL would embrace CTE and use it to help the players it profits from, Bennet was wholly unprepared for what was to come and his story is as heartbreaking as the NFL’s is angering.
To understand Bennet’s naivety, it’s important to understand his upbringing. By his own admission, Dr. Bennet Omalu led a sheltered life and was considered a miracle child. He was a shy child with an aversion to dirt and sweat who battled depression and anxiety. His family, who were Ibo, watched their people be slaughtered in mass genocide and lived in the turmoil that still rages on today, in various ways. But Bennet knew that if he could make it to America, all would be well. And so, he became a physician at 21 and set his sights on freedom. But America, with its corporate money and racist tendencies, turned out to be more than he bargained for and he soon realized the the corruption was as rampant as it was in his home country of Nigeria, if not quite as blatant. (If you’re interested in another great book about a Nigerian coming to America and his cultural observations, check out Every Day is For the Thief by Teju Cole).
His story is as heartbreaking as the NFL’s is angering. Since its founding, America has stood for inclusion, diversity, and freedom. It can be hard for those of us who grew up here to remember that, considering what has been going on the past several years, from legislating reproductive rights to limiting the freedoms of the LGBTQIA community to the mass incarceration and police violence against blacks. But to many in the rest of the world, America still stands for something. It broke my heart to read Bennet’s own pointed observations about how the America he sought out was not the America he found.
Because America, for all its truth-seeking, was not welcoming of his findings. And why would it be? This is a country that revels in knockout hits and spends piles of money on NFL gear. Stadiums are built on the backs of taxpayers and game-goers spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to see a bunch of guys slam into each other so they can throw a ball around. So why would a multi-billion dollar industry be happy that someone cast a light on the dark side of the fun? And so they dismissed Bennet. They talked over him, attempted to undermine his research, went after his friends and colleagues, and did everything they could to get him to be quiet. But Bennet persevered, which perhaps is not surprising considering his given name, Onyemalukwube, means, “If you know, come forth and speak.”Surprise! Concussion (the book) is about so much more than the NFL. Click To Tweet
The NFL’s reaction isn’t surprising. Football is a big deal in America and even the fans were unhappy with Bennet’s discoveries because it forced them to ask themselves uncomfortable questions. I get it. When I was in college, I enjoyed football. I liked being close enough to the field where I could hear the smacks of the helmets as they tackled each other. I liked the camaraderie and shared excitement. But as I got older, I started to become jaded. It started with two very unpleasant experiences with some popular football players (thanks to my time in retail), was exacerbated by Michael Vick, and came full circle when I learned about CTE. But I grew up in a football town, a mile from The Swamp, and it’s hard to let it go. As recently as two years ago, I was outraged when I was told to shush so that Peyton Manning could concentrate because, in my mind, there’s no shushing in football. So if a non-fan like myself can get swept up in the madness, then it’s easy to see how America can, too.
My personal struggles with the game notwithstanding, what the NFL has done with regard to concussion safety and long-term brain damage goes beyond a lack of awareness and love of the game. The reason they went after Bennet and his research was not because of his flawed research or credentials, but was because they already knew what he knew and didn’t want word to get out. They knew about in 1994 when they created a committee to study brain injuries in football players. They knew it in 1999 when they ruled that Mike Webster was permanently disabled. They knew it in the early 2000’s when multiple independent studies said there was a problem. And they know it now. And thanks to Bennet, the wives and families of so many football players also know. They know now why their husbands became depressed, paranoid, or violent. They know why they forgot things and people, or why they gambled away their money. They know why their marriages and families fell apart. They know why they took their own lives. (Check out the full concussion timeline)
According to the NFL, one-third of NFL players will have football related dementia. One could argue that, now that the word is out, playing the game is a choice. But in a country where football represents strength, masculinity, and community, true change will have to come from the top. The question is, who will make it happen?
Recommended for: Football fans and football haters because this is an important book regardless of how you feel about the game (especially if you care about the health of others).