March 03, 2011
"Does ice hockey cause brain damage?" -- Slate
Get ready for a lot of that kind of talk, especially from the outsiders who have to specify it's "ice" hockey (what, no field hockey?). For talk about the future of fighting. About hits to the head. About the deleterious and injurious effects of a game played by large men at a high velocity. And, of course, about Sidney, which is right where CBS went with it.
The New York Times reported Thursday morning that the late Bob Probert's brain tissue exhibited "the same degenerative disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy" that more than 20 deceased NFL players and former NHL tough guy Reggie Fleming had when his brain was posthumously examined by Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Its findings don't spell out anything definitive on hockey's safety ... yet. And its subject was, shall we say, a unique specimen.
"How much is the hockey and how much is the fighting, we don't really know," said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Boston University center and a prominent neurosurgeon in the area of head trauma in sports. "We haven't definitely established that the skills of hockey as a sport lead to a certain percentage of participants developing C.T.E. But it can happen to hockey players, and while they're still relatively young."
Probert's case is, of course, rather unique: a lifetime of bare-knuckle fistfights and body-checks augmented by decades of substance abuse. The BU doctors admitted that these conditions made the case "difficult" to interpret.
Via the Times, Probert's widow thinks hockey overall, and not just fighting, caused this brain damage:
Dani Probert said she learned of her husband's having C.T.E. in early January but only recently became comfortable acknowledging it publicly. She said she would begin encouraging other hockey players to donate their brains, and raising awareness about the possible health risks of sports-related head trauma.
"In my heart of hearts, I don't believe fighting is what did this to Bob," she said. "It was hockey -- all the checking and hits, things like that."
The NHL and the NHLPA have acknowledged the risks for brain injury in their game, and are slowly moving towards other measures for player safety. Will that mean a total ban on contact with the head down the line? Or more incremental measures like changes to equipment?
In the words of Jeremy Roenick(notes), it's time for the NHL to wake up. They lost Eric Lindros to concussions, amongst many others. They lost Sidney Crosby(notes) in what was quickly becoming one of the greatest individual seasons in league history. And who knows, perhaps Crosby may never be able to full recover from this.
It is time for the NHL to dramatically change it's culture regarding head shots and even fighting. If the NHL does not do it, one day they will be forced to do so, and will lose control over their own future.
We get that brain trauma is brain trauma ... but why is the line from Bob Probert to Sidney Crosby drawn so quickly in these conversations?
All due respect to Dani Probert, but her husband had 246 fights with the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks. Sidney Crosby has 241 fights to go in order to catch him. One was a pugilist, the other is a prince; one willingly engaged in blows to the head, the other may have seen his season ended and career altered by what could be called incidental contact.
This isn't saying only fighters develop C.T.E. We'll leave the neuroscience to the neuroscientists, but when two enforcers have their brains studied and doctors find the same ailment, perhaps it has more to do with their role than their game?
But yes, more studies are necessary to determine that.
As we've said before: Hockey is an inherently violent game, and the players in the NHL know that, as they aspired to reach the professional level. The league should embrace studies like this that clearly spell out the potential risks in competing in this game, while at the same time attempting to implement safety measures to lessen those assumed risks.
But if the answer to Slate's question at the top of the post is "Yes," well, then what?
Neuter the sport? Ban the sport? Or simply better educate the men who put their safety on the line in a dozen ways every night for the sake of their livelihood and the game that they love?
No matter what path the NHL chooses to protect players' brains, the conversation will eventually return to fighting. And that's not a conversation the league, or the majority of we the fans, want to have.