25. Concussion – Nothing Hits Harder Than the Truth

In this episode of the podcast we look at the science behind the 2015 film Concussion, directed byPeter Landesman, distributed by Columbia Pictures, and starring Will Smith. This film is based on the “Game Brain” exposé that was published by GQ magazine in 2009, which told the story of how a young pathologist working in Pittsburgh changed American Football forever.

In 2002 Mike Webster, a former player of the American Football team the Pittsburgh Steelers, died from a hear attack. When investigating his death, it became apparent that Webster had been suffering from erratic behaviour (ranging from memory loss to severe psychotic outbreaks) for several years. Dr Bennet Omalu (who was the forensic pathologist assigned to his death) wondered what would cause an otherwise fit and healthy 50-year old man to behave in this manner, and eventually discovered that hat Webster died because of the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head, a disorder he later called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Despite medically proving the existence of CTE, Dr Omalu is put under considerable pressure by the National Football League (NFL) to back away from his research, which they consider to be an affront to their sport. Eventually though Omalu is vindicated, and the NFL are forced to start to consider the issue more seriously.

We are joined in this episode by Dr Thomas Allen, a Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Manchester Metropolitan University, and an expert in the field of Sports Engineering. Tom talks to us about the important role that science and engineering plays in protecting athletes (and more amateur sports enthusiasts), both in terms of determining safety standards and designing equipment to match them. We also consider the role that science and engineering plays in providing top-level athletes with advantages over their competitors, and when this might be going too far…