Groundbreaking concussion lawyer speaks at Duquesne

Ralph N. Paulk
| Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, 7:42 p.m.

In the days leading up to Super Bowl 50, the NFL again finds itself dealing with an alarming number of concussions.

There were 115 reported cases of concussions during the 2014 season. Despite a number of safety precautions, including helmet technology and supposedly enhanced safety protocol, there were 182 concussions in 2015 — a 58 percent increase.

The numbers are particularly disturbing for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who over the past few seasons implemented strict fines and suspensions to crack down on dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits.

The Steelers' title hopes were seemingly dashed when All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown suffered a concussion in the wild-card game at the Cincinnati Bengals. He failed to pass the league's concussion examinations before a divisional playoff loss at the Denver Broncos.

On Thursday, attorney Jason Luckasevic discussed the controversial issue of concussions during a seminar at Duquesne School of Law. The sports concussion litigation discussion focused primarily on brain injuries among former and current NFL players. More than 6,000 former players were involved in litigation that resulted in an estimated billion-dollar settlement.

Luckasevic said that five years ago, a player in Brown's situation would have played, risking further brain trauma.

“I guarantee you he would have played,” Luckasevic said. “I think this knowledge (of concussions) changed that decision.

“This isn't a story of one concussion. It's a story of chronic brain injuries of athletes.

“I know the NFL believes they aren't responsible for (brain) injuries to current players,” Luckasevic added. “This issue of concussion isn't unique to sports. Most concussions come from falls and motor vehicle accidents.”

But Luckasevic has pushed the concussion issue to the forefront for the NFL — a league that for years denied culpability for its players' head injuries. Luckasevic pointed to former Steelers Mike Webster and Terry Long, both victims of concussion. He said Webster suffered as many as 20,000 hits to the head.

“Crash-test dummies wouldn't last after that many hits to the head,” Luckasevic said. “It (concussion) is a disease of repeated trauma.”

In the movie “Concussion,” Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who first identified chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease, in football players. He battled the football establishment to have it recognized.

Luckasevic, a 2000 Duquesne graduate, brought concussions in sports to national attention by filing the first two lawsuits against the NFL. He had several discussions with Dr. Omalu about his concussion research before taking on the NFL.

“The talk was Omalu's work was unscientific,” Luckasevic said. “I didn't understand that. It was simple. You look at person's brain, it's black or white. It's cancer or not cancer.

“We went through many dark times together trying to make this happen. From 2006 to 2011, when we finally filed the lawsuit, there were a lot of blows. There were opportunities for us to have thrown in the towel.

“My law firm, at first, wasn't ready to fund this,” he added. “There were people telling me ‘You don't have a case or pull this together and that the NFL is worth $10 billion. How can you beat a company like that?' ”

Recently, doctors agreed former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler suffered from CTE, partly because of repeated blows to the head. According to a Mayo Clinic study, 96 percent of NFL players have shown signs of CTE.

“There's a change in how society is thinking about the NFL,” said Daniel Kunz, a Duquesne graduate who represents several NFL players. “I think it's going to benefit society. Jason is changing the game.”

Luckasevic said Omalu challenged him to figure out a way to take on the NFL. He began by studying the cases involving Webster and Long. He met with the widows of other athletes, who had suffered or died from extensive brain damage as a result of chronic concussions.

In a published report by Boston University, 90 of 94 NFL players who had brain autopsies were diagnosed with CTE.

“The NFL manipulated science by telling players that concussions and brain injuries were OK,” Luckasevic said. “By age 40, some players would be in nursing facilities. This is a battle to help injured people who were left with nothing.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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