Staying Blind to Head Trauma

“Any head contact is a possible mechanism of injury. I can't believe we have to say that in 2017.” —Chris Nowinski

Sticking to Sports

It’s Game 6 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals of the National Hockey League, and the Washington Capitals are playing the Pittsburgh Penguins. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has just made a miraculous recovery from a concussion—to some, a suspiciously quick one, considering Crosby’s concussion history—in about a week. And then, in only the first period of the game, Crosby gets twisted up with Capitals defenseman John Carlson and goalie Braden Holtby. The collision takes Crosby headfirst into the boards. He’s slow to get up. But he gets back on the bench; he isn’t pulled aside by the NHL’s concussion spotters for evaluation. The league’s Deputy Commissioner has an answer as to why.

“‘Ice’ has been found to be a predictor of concussions—‘boards’ has not been.”

Of course, fans and experts were dismayed by the sheer ridiculousness of Daly’s statement. Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation dismissed that excuse, saying, “Any head contact is a possible mechanism of injury. I can't believe we have to say that in 2017.”

That incident isn’t the only example of leagues overlooking the safety of their players. Despite growing concern over the health implications of head contact, the National Football League has a history of denying the link between football and CTE—a degenerative brain disease that begins with aggression, paranoia, and depression, and develops into memory loss or even progressive dementia. Players are pressured to return from injury quickly, when their coaching staff needs them back in the lineup, reflecting the league administration’s close-minded views about head trauma.

Sports that are commonly thought of as “non-contact” are no exception to this danger; soccer, for instance, can cause brain damage—most frequently when a player hits the ball with their head. This open secret manifests itself in lawsuits and disagreements within league administration. Unsealed emails from 2009 revealed National Hockey League officials joking about “tree huggin, never played sport, leftist doctors…that soon won’t let us climb stairs for fear of concussion...”

The first step in solving these issues is putting the right people in charge of them. The NHL, for instance, has a habit of putting former players known for their physicality in charge of the Department of Player Safety. This year’s new appointee was George Parros, an ex-enforcer—someone who made his name on the ice by fighting—who is also known for his stance that hockey should be violent. A good candidate for director of player safety should know what it’s like to be targeted on a nightly basis and never underestimate the danger of head injury. Ideally, there should be at least one person in charge of player safety who has faced the health implications of head trauma themselves. However, the one-off appointees who do good for player safety can’t be just one-offs. There’s a larger culture change that needs to take place.

What really makes certain sports dangerous to play is the aggressive, often-reckless mentality that every athlete is taught to cultivate. And we’re all complicit in that. If a player fights through injury to finish a game, we celebrate them. We praise them for their resilience, their dedication, their toughness. We, as a society, nurture a sports culture which demands that athletes make physical sacrifices that have far-reaching, often lifelong consequences for them. We expect them to play roughly against their opponents, even in ostensibly “non-contact” sports. It’s really no wonder that administrative officials don’t value medical advice or player safety as much as they should. We teach them that’s okay.

A common counterargument is that injuries come with the job for athletes in strenuous, physical sports; that’s what they’re earning so much money. (Well, first of all, head trauma affects players who aren’t being paid whatsoever, in sports with rules against physical play.) It’s understandable that there’s fear in admitting something you follow can be fatally injurious for the athletes you love.

However, the debate about safety in professional sports is happening in a vacuum. Sports like football are seeing declining participation at high school levels—a decline not unrelated to worries about concussions and health issues. One can’t blame concerned parents who take their children out of contact sports when research suggests that even youth football can cause problems later on in life.

Player safety goes far beyond the athletes on the professional stage, right now. It affects every fan, and every middle-school player’s dreams. And looking at the state of things, player safety could change the very future of the games we love.

Stuti R. Telidevara ’20, a Crimson Blog Comp Director, is an English concentrator in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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