Dr. Charles Tator and Leo Ezerins, Bruce lawsuit defendants, take public shots at BU concussion research group: a battle of the border?

Dr. Charles Tator (L), a defendant in Arland Bruce II's concussion lawsuit, told TSN The Boston group has gotten in the habit of calling a media conference every time they find (CTE). We have a different style.
Dr. Charles Tator (L), a defendant in Arland Bruce II's concussion lawsuit, told TSN The Boston group has gotten in the habit of calling a media conference every time they find (CTE). We have a different style.

While Arland Bruce III's concussion lawsuit against the CFL's teams and a variety of other defendants is still playing out in court, a couple of those defendants have come out with rather notable recent public statements on concussions. TSN's Rick Westhead spoke to Dr. Charles Tator and CFL Alumni Association executive director Leo Ezerins, both defendants in the Bruce case, for a piece published this week (via Terry Ott at The Concussion Blog), and both had some interesting comments on the case and concussions in general. Perhaps most intriguingly, both have made harsh criticisms of the Boston University group of researchers that's led much of the discussion on concussions. Does that indicate that concussion research is going in different directions in the U.S. and Canada? Let's examine their comments and find out.

First, Ezerins strongly disputes Bruce's claims against him (which discuss the CFLAA's role in general, but particularly revolve around Ezerins' alleged efforts to quash a Hamilton Spectator concussion study in 2011, also mentioning his alleged overall downplaying of concussions), saying the CFLAA doesn't provide advice or counselling:

Ezerins said in an emailed statement that Bruce's allegations against him are "spurious and without any merit.

"The CFLAA is, for lack of a better description, a philanthropic organization, focused on assisting former CFL players, if we can," Ezerins wrote. "We make no claims as to possessing any kind of expertise, thus we do not provide advice or counselling."

That's a matter of some dispute. Here are the key parts of the comments on Ezerins in Bruce's filed statement of claim (available in full through The Concussion Blog here):

The key comments on CFLAA executive director Leo Ezerins in Arland Bruce III's lawsuit.
The key comments on CFLAA executive director Leo Ezerins in Arland Bruce III's lawsuit.

The "feedbag" comment is particularly notable, as we're about to get to criticisms of the same BU group from Tator. That quoted comment comes from this December 2013 post on The Concussion Blog by Ott, the second part of his seven-part series on CFL concussions, relating a face-to-face discussion he had with Ezerins about concussions. Here are those comments (see the post for the full context):

It was pretty obvious, as well, that Ezerins was not exactly on side either with Chris Nowinski, founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, the Boston University CTE researchers and other assorted noisy-nosy-Nellie advocates dealing seriously with football concussions.

“A lot of these guys are on a feed-bag,” said Leo.

Ezerins, still quite an imposing figure well into his 50s with a slight thousand yard stare yet was so soft-spoken that I asked him to repeat what he said, as at first I thought I had not heard him correctly. A “feed-bag,” I asked. What’s that?

Leo then explained that in his opinion, some were trying and in fact succeeding to dine-out on the suddenly hot football concussion debate, making careers and remuneration off a controversial issue that he believed was far from set in stone.

Yet when I posed the rhetorical question, to wit, if an ad was placed in an Atlanta newspaper seeking American former CFL players with concussion issues-many former US CFL players came from that area-how many responses did he think it would generate, Leo’s answer after a short pause was, “lots.”

Trying to reconcile the “feedbag” remark with “lots” of ex-players with concussion problems in Atlanta was a difficult one for me.

So then I asked Ezerins whether he had suffered concussions, and if so, whether he had any residual effect from them now and he said that yes, he believed he had been concussed in his career, but that no, he currently had no problems.

He then quietly said something that again stopped me in my tracks when I asked if he was not worried that he may yet develop issues related to football head trauma from a near decade long pro career.

“I’m more concerned about psychosomatic symptoms (of brain injury)” said Ezerins.

How much relevance those comments will have in this suit is yet to be decided, but Ezerins' bashing of the BU researchers and his comments on "psychosomatic symptoms" (i.e., it's all in their heads) is notable. The BU group has played a huge role in concussion research over the last decade and has found the vast majority of confirmed cases of CTE in football players and other athletes (although Tator's group found three in six studies of former CFL players' brains, but elected to title their resulting study "Absence of CTE"). Key Canadian figures like Tator and Ezerins don't seem to have a lot of respect for what the American scientists have done, though, and they certainly disagree with their conclusions. Here's what Tator told Westhead this week about the BU group:

Tator told TSN that after starting research four years ago, he and his team have now studied 12 brains, and will release another report updating their findings. He wouldn't say when that report might be made public.

"The Boston group has gotten in the habit of calling a media conference every time they find (CTE)," Tator said. "We have a different style."

That's certainly milder than Ezerins' reported comments, but it appears to be a shot along the same lines. That has Ott writing that Tator's comments (on BU, and on a cited 1952 study from Harvard he also downplays) don't seem helpful to the cause of advancing concussion research:

Yet when there seems to be a current movement to get all concussion prevention and treatment interested parties on the same page, Dr. Tator’s singling out of BU’s public relations methods, and his rather flippant disregard for Harvard University’s 1952 concussion recommendations would appear to be a step backwards as far as finding consensus on the concussion problem which is fast becoming a significant public health concern and danger to the sustainability of tackle football at all levels.

When asked by Ott for a response, the BU group declined to comment, but it's interesting that key BU researcher Dr. Robert Cantu had nothing but praise for Tator's group when I interviewed him two years ago:

Cantu said he has a huge amount of respect for what Tator's accomplished with that project and with his ThinkFirst education initiative, and he's happy to see other respected doctors investigating CTE.

"He's done marvelous work in ThinkFirst," Cantu said. "I'm thrilled they're involved with CTE research."

Cantu's optimistic that the work of Tator and others will lead to greater focus on concussions in Canada, as the issue is just as important north of the border.

"The brain doesn't know whether it got concussed in Canada or in the U.S."

Who knows if that respect's still there following this wave of cross-border shots, but it's interesting to see the different lines that the Tator group's research and the BU group's research are following. Both have received funding from the respective professional football leagues in their country (the NFL gave BU $1 million in funding for brain studies in 2010, while the CFL has provided Tator's group with funding, although he claims that's to the tune of less than $2,000), and both are studying the same disease, but they're coming to vastly different conclusions so far. (It's notable that the leagues have met different legal resolutions so far, too; the NFL is in the proicess of settling its concussion lawsuits to the tune of more than $1 billion, while the CFL concussion lawsuits are just beginning, with Bruce's the only one even filed yet.) If Bruce's case does go to trial, there's likely to be a lot of debate over the merits of the various groups' research and the different ways this research has played out in Canada and the U.S. so far. That will be notable to watch.

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