A cinematic touchdown

The work of Dr. Julian E. Bailes is highlighted in the film “Concussion”

January/February 2016


In November, Dr. Julian E. Bailes took a break from seeing patients and his research into the effects of football and other contact sports on the brain to attend a premiere of the major motion picture “Concussion,” which features actor Alec Baldwin portraying him during his time at West Virginia University.
“It was great,” Bailes said during a telephone interview from Evanston, Illinois, where he now serves as chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Illinois.
“I’d already seen the movie and I got to see it a second time. The director got up and made some comments and had me stand up and acknowledged me to the crowd. We had a really good time.”
“Concussion,” starring Will Smith, famous for films such as “Independence Day,” “Men in Black,” “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “I Am Legend,” as Bailes’ colleague, Dr. Bennet Omalu, was released on Christmas Day by Columbia Pictures. In addition to Smith and Baldwin, the film co-stars Luke Wilson, Albert Brooks, Hill Harper and Arliss Howard.
The premiere took place at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood as part of the American Film Institute’s AFI FEST and gave Bailes the opportunity to walk the red carpet and rub shoulders with actors as well as former Redskins and Giants defensive lineman Leonard Marshall.
The two have something in common other than a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which Bailes has studied and Marshall exhibits signs of — they both played football for Louisiana State University. Bailes quit after a neck injury.
“Concussion” depicts Bailes’ and Omalu’s research into the discovery of CTE, which causes neurologic damage in football players and other athletes, as well as the scientists’ battle with NFL officials to convince them that changes need to occur in order to prevent future injury.
It was based on a 2009 article in GQ magazine called “Game Brain” by Pittsburgh-based writer Jeanne Marie Laskas, who also co-wrote the script with director Peter Landesman. In November, Laskas released a book, “Concussion,” published by Random House, to coincide with the film.
Much of the doctors’ work took place in Pittsburgh and Morgantown, where Bailes served as professor and chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the West Virginia University School of Medicine for 11 years.
Bailes left in late 2011, but not before he and Omalu made national headlines for their work together.
Laskas’ article depicts Omalu, then a pathologist in the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh, as a man on a mission when he found lesions on the brain of former Steelers center Mike Webster, who died in 2002 at the age of 50 after experiencing symptoms of dementia.
Omalu connected Webster’s condition with his years playing football but ran into resistance from the NFL when he presented his findings.
Eventually, as portrayed by Laskas, Bailes telephoned Omalu and said, “I’m calling to tell you I believe you.”
Bailes had a good reason to be interested in Omalu’s research. He served as a team doctor for the Steelers from 1988 to 1998.
“I knew Mike Webster,” Bailes added. “I was his doctor after he retired. He was having more and more problems. And I was aware of players having problems. It began to make sense for me. It began to click.
“I thought for five years prior that something was going on and when (Omalu) announced his findings, I called him up.”
Omalu’s work led him to come up with the name CTE for the condition that causes erratic behavior in the athletes who were posthumously diagnosed when lesions were detected on their brains.
In 2002, the Bailes and Omalu founded the Brain Injury Research Institute and began conducting tests on the brains of deceased athletes, including those of Terry Long, a former Steelers defensive lineman who died after drinking antifreeze at the age of 45; Andre Waters, a Philadelphia Eagles safety who shot and killed himself at the age of 44; and Justin Strzelczyk, a former Steelers offensive lineman who died at the age of 36 after driving into a tank trunk going 90 mph.
After retired professional wrestler Chris Benoit killed himself, his wife and son at the age of 40, Bailes studied his brain and found the same lesions in a situation that illustrated that CTE could occur in sports other than football.
And then Bailes and Omalu held a press conference at WVU in 2010 to announce that Chris Henry, a former WVU wide receiver who was playing for the Cincinnati Bengals when he died after falling out of a truck during a domestic dispute, also had CTE at the age of 26.
“He was the youngest and only active NFL player reported,” Bailes said.
Bailes joined Omalu in asking that the NFL make changes to avoid future head injuries. These days, Bailes said some have occurred and now it is the standard for team doctors not to allow a player who has a concussion back in the game until his current injury has healed completely.
Bailes also has been an advocate of taking head contact out of the game.
“But at end of day football is contact sport,” he said.
Plus, “The issue is not just football. There are other sports with concussion problems and head injury problems. Rules have been changed, practice has been changed.”
And yet the stories continue. In a case that Bailes was not involved with, the family of the late Frank Gifford, the former New York Giants running back and well-known sports commentator, released a statement on Thanksgiving Day saying that Gifford had suffered from CTE.
“I think in a way, it’s not surprising,” Bailes said. “He played in the old era of football and he was involved in a style of play and playing position where he had a lot of head impacts. I think that he probably had a lot of exposure.
“His experience, hopefully, is a bygone era of football, where the contact of the head was unmitigated and unappreciated for the long-term consequences.”
As a former Steelers team doctor, Bailes remembers when former coach Bill Cowher wanted to know why an injured player could not go back into the game, as illustrated in a photo he still keeps in his office.
“At that time, it was not unusual for coaches to get involved with injured players,” he said. “It’s a sign of the times, Bill Cowher and me having a discussion whether certain players should go back in the game.”
These days, those decisions should be made by physicians, not coaches.
And as the medical advisor for Pop Warner football, Bailes wants to ensure that modifications occur in all phases of football.
“I care about football and I want it to continue,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of changes at the Pop Warner level to make it safer.”
Clearly a busy man, Bailes was involved with “Concussion” as a consultant, flying out to Los Angeles in 2014.
“I told them my side of the story, what Bennet Omalu and I went through and what the science of it was, and that we were really invested and trying to understand the science of what we were seeing,” he said.
“Concussion” was shot in Pittsburgh from October 2014 to January 2015. Bailes was on location for some of the filming, including when Will Smith was shooting some pivotal scenes. However, “They don’t like the real people there when filming,” Bailes said. “They want to be that person. Bennet Omalu and I were there and we had to go to another part of the set. But we talked to them later in the day. They didn’t want the real people standing there and gawking at them.”
Bailes understood. “If you were going to be a neurosurgeon and you got in the mindset of the character, you want everybody to think you’re him and not have the real person staring at you off camera.”
He was not on set when Baldwin, known for the NBC TV show “30 Rock” and films such as “Beetlejuice” and “The Hunt for Red October” and who bears a passing resemblance to Bailes, was portraying him.
“He did a good job,” Bailes said. “I know he’s considered a great actor. It was an honor for him to play me.”
Apparently Baldwin prepared for the role in part by watching interviews featuring Bailes on YouTube and reading “Brain Drain” as well as the book “The League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.
“I’m originally from New Orleans and I think he tries to do a southern accent, but I don’t think I have a southern accent,” Bailes said.
Still, he enjoyed the film and in November looked forward to its release.
“It’s a great movie,” he said. “I think it accurately portrays what we went through, what the discovery was like. It’s a lot about Bennet Omalu’s life and the scientific, medical facts and timeline are basically accurate. It’s a good, accurate depiction of what we went through.”