Sunday, November 9, 2014

How One Lawyer’s Crusade Could Change Football Forever -

How One Lawyer’s Crusade Could Change Football Forever -

by Michael Sokolove

There are 1.27 million lawyers in the United States, one for about every 300 Americans — about 400,000 more of them than there are doctors. Their work is rarely glamorous, and especially for those just starting out in the profession, it can be grinding and repetitive. Jason Luckasevic, hired out of law school in 2000 by a firm in Pittsburgh, passed the bar exam on his first try and was quickly sworn in to practice. The ceremony, such as it was, took place on a Thursday in a clerk’s office, rather than in a courtroom in front of family and friends, because his bosses needed him to get started. The following Monday morning, he drove to Johnstown, about 90 minutes away, where he spent the day taking depositions from former employees of an enormous steel plant that had exposed them to asbestos. Late that afternoon, he climbed back into his Honda Civic and headed home. He repeated this routine for the next six months, five days a week, racking up some 400 depositions and about 20,000 miles on the road.

Luckasevic harbored no grandiose visions for himself — no ambition to clerk for a Supreme Court justice, no thought of blazing new legal ground. His father was a machinist, his mother a teller at a credit union, his godfather the president of a United Steelworkers local. “Working lawyers for working people” was the motto of Goldberg, Persky & White, the firm he joined, and it suited him just fine. “We were one of the early firms into the asbestos world,” Luckasevic explained to me over breakfast not long ago. “It was difficult, but it was also great. My attitude was, I’m going to work hard, do good at this and be successful. Hopefully, I’ll be like some of the established guys in the firm and start making some nice money and have a nice vehicle.”
As Luckasevic was getting started on his legal career, his older brother, Todd, was in his medical residency at the Allegheny County medical-examiner’s office, working under a forensic pathologist named Bennet Omalu. The Nigerian-born doctor spent some Thanksgivings with the extended Luckasevic clan. He and the Luckasevic brothers sometimes went out for beers together or to hockey games. Luckasevic found Omalu to be good company, “an easy guy to be around, even though you could tell he was brilliant or even a genius.”
In 2002, Omalu performed an autopsy on Mike Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman and a member of pro football’s Hall of Fame. Webster was just 50 when he died, and he spent the last years of his life suffering from dementia, at times living in his pickup truck. When Omalu studied Webster’s brain in his laboratory, he noted a degeneration of tissue and other markers of decline usually present only in people decades older or sometimes in boxers suffering from “punch drunk” syndrome. Over the next few years, he autopsied five other former N.F.L. players, none of them old, and saw the same patterns: tangled brain tissue and the accumulation of tau protein, a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
Omalu published his findings on Webster in 2005 in the journal Neurosurgery. He identified what he was seeing as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., and suggested that football caused irreversible brain damage. The N.F.L.'s response was to attack him, and N.F.L.-affiliated doctors demanded, without success, that Neurosurgery retract the article. Later his conclusions were called “preposterous” and a “misinterpretation of the facts.”
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