Last week, a stunning piece of journalism was aired on Frontline. "League of Denial," based on the book of the same name, delves into the problem of Chronic Traumatic Encepalopathy (CTE) in pro football. CTE is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head injury. Symptoms include dementia, memory loss, anger, confusion, and depression. It's absolutely heartbreaking to learn about the way the lives of some of these NFL players fell apart as their mental health degenerated. Men who were intelligent and kind found themselves unable to string sentences together and behaving erratically and violently towards their family. Wives and children describe them as being different men than when they were younger. Drug addiction, financial implosion, suicide... it almost becomes a script for the lives of these former players.
The documentary explores CTE in football, including its discovery, growing evidence, and potential implications for football. Even more shocking, it documents the NFL's systematic 20 year-long failure to adequately address the problem of concussions due to ignorance or malice. The league put profit ahead of the health of players and future generations by maliciously slandering medical professionals and putting out their own shoddy research and disinformation. Please watch it; it may change the way you view football entirely. The entire episode is available for free on the PBS Frontline site.
It shook me to the point where I'm now wondering if I'll continue watching football at all. It's a debate I've been struggling with the past few days. Yet football isn't that hard for me to give up, because hockey is my sport. I started to wonder, what evidence is there of CTE in the NHL? Most articles I found on the topic come from 2011.
Many fans will recall to why that is: Derek Boogaard. Derek died in May of 2011 from a drug overdose at the young age of 28. A tough enforcer, Boogaard was punched in the head plenty, and he displayed the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and drug abuse. After his death, an exam of his brain showed he had CTE. In fact, while four deceased NHL players had been tested for CTE, all four were found to have it. This raised big questions about fighting in the NHL and whether or not it's time to get rid of the idea of an enforcer entirely. The deaths of Wade Belak and Rick Rypien also shed light on the same problem.
Presented with this issue, the NHL made some changes. No more blindside hits to the head, more careful exams for symptoms of concussions before returning to play, more rules made to limit fighting.
It's not enough. Bryan Reynolds over at Hockey Wilderness called it a "missed opportunity." (and he describes the NHL's poor response better than I do). Other than the new bucket rules introduced this season, there hasn't been much done since the wake of Boogaard's death.
Players still punch each others' skulls. These fights still usually pit fighter against fighter, annulling any argument about protecting skill players. They bash each other for team motivation. And concussions from regular gameplay haven't reduced either. In fact, since 2011, concussions have actually increased. Sydney Crosby sat out 100+ games due to concussions, Chris Pronger's career ended because of them. The sport is still violent, fans still cheer when someone gets shoved into the boards headfirst or two guys slug it out (admittedly, I've been one of those fans).
Instead of trying to limit fighting, it's time to eliminate it. Remove players from games, seriously fine them. Take measures to actually reduce the violence and frequency of head contact with the walls and ice. Acknowledge the risks between playing rough hockey and having long term mental problems and work to educate parents and players about this. Fund independent research into brain health related to hockey.
Of course, there are those who say that violence is part of the sport. Like a boxer, a player knows what they're getting in to and accept the risks to their body. Maybe so, but I'd argue that being crippled mentally is a far worse fate than being crippled physically. Do you think Mike Webster would have played football if he knew that his last years would be spent living in train stations, divorced, physically weak, and tazing himself to fall asleep? These are not risks we've recognized until recently, and players have the right to know. I'd rather have a "wussy" sport, but save hundreds, maybe thousands, of guys from the suffering so many are going through.
While the NFL is facing a threat to its very existence, I don't think the NHL has to have the same problem. I love a game filled with precision and skill. Fights and big hits don't really make or break a game for me as a fan. If we had to seriously change the way players make contact, hockey will still be a game worth watching.
It's true that more research is needed to fully understand CTE and exactly how it starts, but it's obvious that there is a connection to the way these games are played. The league has to take the lead in addressing this issue, and we as fans need to demand that the NHL take it seriously. I don't want to enjoy a sport built on broken lives.