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NFL not 'taking a responsible leadership position' on concussions, author tells Cal U audience

Joe Napsha
| Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, 10:56 p.m.

The author behind the best-selling book and movie “Concussion” said Thursday she was “not trying to kill football” by shining the light on the brain injuries suffered by professional players, as well as athletes of other sports.

But Jeanne Marie Laskas told more than 70 people attending a program at California University of Pennsylvania that she doesn't believe the National Football League is “taking a responsible leadership position” on researching player brain injuries.

Her book about former Pittsburgh forensic neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu and his discovery of the traumatic effects of repeated concussions on the brains of NFL football players was made into the popular 2015 movie starring Will Smith.

Omalu, working under famed forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, figured out that “it is the repetitive hits that cause this constant, constant, constant rattling of the brain, that cause this disease, this CTE,” Laskas said, referring to the progressive degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

While working at the then-Allegheny County Coroner's Office, Omalu performed tests and research on the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler “Iron” Mike Webster. Webster died in 2002 at 50 after suffering for years from the debilitating effects of brain damage from thousands of blows to his head while an offensive lineman.

Laskas, director of the University of Pittsburgh's writing program, said many of the NFL players are aware they could suffer the common injuries of broken bones and knee injuries if they play the sport, but she did not think they decided to make football a career “knowing I could lose my mind.”

Speaking as a fan, Laskas admitted she watches the Steelers, but not from the perspective “knowing in 10 years one of my favorite players could end up like Mike Webster.”

The issue of concussions among Pittsburgh's top professional athletes surfaced again two weeks ago when Penguins superstar Sydney Crosby suffered a concussion in practice. Crosby, who has had at least three concussions in his career, is practicing with the team but has yet to play in a game this season.

Contacted separately from Laskas' speech, Dr. Edward Snell, the Pittsburgh Pirates' team physician and head of the Sports Concussion Program at Alllegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, said that no matter how strong the athlete, repetitive head injuries can cause brain damage.

“We should be a little more leery of putting people back to play too early where they are at risk,” Snell said.

Increased focus on concussion effects among athletes and their potential long-term brain damage has had a positive impact, Snell said.

“It has changed our view and understanding of concussions and the course of treatment, but we still don't have a way to prevent it,” Snell said.

Each concussion is a sort of a medical problem with its own characteristics, which has to be treated differently, Snell said.

Dr. Anthony Alessi of Norwich, Conn., a neurologist and consultant to the NFL Players Association, agreed.

“No two concussions are exactly alike. There's no general rule,” about concussions, Alessi said.

Some people may suffer lingering brain damage after one concussion. In others, 20 concussions may not cause the same damage, Snell noted.

“How many (concussion) is too many?” he asked. “One.”

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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