Saturday 25 November 2017

Sport's topic du jour gets the big screen treatment

Book Review

Alan Aherne


Concussion and its after-effects is the topic du jour in sporting circles right now.

It has inevitably cropped up in every recent conversation about Irish rugby out-half Jonny Sexton, with some observers forming the opinion that he should quit the game rather than risk serious long-term damage to his faculties.

And the issue crossed over into the G.A.A. world on the first day of the Allianz League down in Páirc Uí Rinn when Cork's Eoin Cadogan and Lee Keegan of Mayo endured an accidental clash of heads which didn't make for pleasant viewing on the replays.

The contrast in responses from the respective medical teams was startling. Cadogan was immediately called ashore by Cork's Dr. Con Murphy, whereas his Mayo counterpart relented when Keegan insisted that he was capable of staying on.

Scarcely ten minutes later he had to give way to the inevitable as he wasn't able to continue. This prompted a statement that evening from Mayo saying that they had erred in leaving their player on the field when he was clearly concussed.

I found the general response to this to be extremely odd, and certainly not in keeping with my own opinion. There was widespread praise bestowed on Mayo for accepting an error was made, but surely this only let them off the hook because their initial decision was shocking and totally at odds with all known protocols in these situations.

If their statement was intended as a damage limitation exercise, it clearly worked, but it certainly didn't make their original actions any more acceptable.

Anyway, there's no better time to educate oneself on concussion because the film on the subject starring Will Smith was released this month.

He plays the role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born and Pittsburgh-based forensic pathologist whose pioneering work highlighted the numerous cases of trauma-related brain disease in retired American footballers and led to a far-reaching medical breakthrough.

The book on which the film is based, written by Jeanne Marie Laskas, is as much about the life of Dr. Omalu, his privileged upbringing and his odd ball characteristics, as it is about the incredible discoveries he made.

The scene-setting takes up roughly 90 pages before we get to the heart of the matter: Dr. Omalu is asked to perform the autopsy of a legendary former Pittsburgh Steelers hero nicknamed 'Iron Mike' whose mental health had gone into a sharp decline after he retired from the game.

He urinated in his oven at home, Super Glued his teeth when they fell out, and Tasered himself in a bid to alleviate chronic back pain. Dr. Omalu discovered that Mike Webster's issues were firmly rooted in his football career, and specifically in the countless heavy blows he had received to his head during games.

Slowly but surely, Dr. Omalu examined the brains of more and more young retired footballers who had taken their own lives in various gruesome ways, and a clear pattern emerged.

Despite the damning evidence though, the sport's organising body, the NFL, didn't accept his findings and tried to denounce them, purely because they feared for the future of the game which generates billions of dollars annually for the American economy.

It's a gripping tale, even though there's too much emphasis in the book on Dr. Omalu's back story before cutting to the chase. When the kernel of the issue is addressed though, it's riveting stuff.

Visit The Book Centre on Wexford's Main Street for the very best selection of sports books.

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