Wednesday, October 9, 2013

On "League of Denial"...and the NHL

I watched PBS' two-hour "Frontline" documentary, "League of Denial," last night.  If you haven't seen it, the whole show is available for streaming here.

Not surprisingly, seeing my interest in the growing story of traumatic brain injuries in contact sports, I have a few thoughts to offer.  This is a blog largely dedicated to offering thoughts and opinions, so I can't think of a better place to do so.  

If you've come this far only to hear an alarm go off in your head screaming, "HOW DARE YOU INTERRUPT MY ENTERTAINMENT WITH REAL LIFE?"...well...not sure I can help you.  You might want to move along.  If you're interested in what hopefully will be a reasoned discussion of a serious topic with a number of different aspects, read on.

Every journalist, blogger and third-party opinion maker should watch this.  Put the subject matter aside for the moment, because what we saw is called JOURNALISM.  In an age where media outlets are often too close to the subjects of their coverage, I cannot express how refreshing it is to see genuine reporters investigating, (re-)constructing a narrative and reporting their findings in a manner that is both powerful and simple.  Our world doesn't need muckraking with every article written - How can one spin Thomas Hertl's four-goal performance as the insidious work of nameless, faceless corporations? - but surely there is room for an independent media to do good work, serve the public interest and keep all sides honest.  This leads me to start bemoaning the decline of the independent American newspaper and American media consolidation, but I digress.

At the macro level, the documentary is a two-hour demonstration of what happens when the very foundation of the rich and powerful is challenged.  Wealth and power must be protected at all costs.  Goliath must crush David.  The NFL must ice the assistant medical examiner in Pittsburgh who never asked to start all this by just doing his job, an autopsy on NFL Hall of Famer and former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, the best way he knew how.  It's the same story that we've seen over the ages.  Sometimes, however, the whistle-blower breaks through to help rewire the public consciousness, as with Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle".  Perhaps that will be the case here.  Perhaps not.  We shall see.

Keeping the power relationships issue in mind, I want to applaud the filmmakers for their willingness to give an airing to the opinions of those who are not, as my buddy Morgan calls, "cause-heads."  These medical professionals make a great point when they say that the direct causal linkages between professional football and CTE cannot be considered ironclad at this point.  We all acknowledge that professional athletes live on the edge, with many experimenting with drugs, alcohol or other unsavory lifestyle choices.  What affect does all of that have on the CTE findings? Still, it's hard to look at the 46 football player brains that the BU researchers have examined, 45 of which had CTE, and not draw some conclusions.

Of course, this is about the sport of football.  It's not about meatpacking, like in "The Jungle".  It's not about child labor or human trafficking.  It's not about hydraulic fracturing, a topic ripe for a few more "Gasland"-type exposes before our groundwater is ruined for generations while companies send our newly-found energy source off to the Far East.  It's about a sport!  This is supposed to be entertaining - a recreational pursuit!  Yet the film strikes at the core of what currently is our national culture.  America loves its professional football, and professional football appears to be destroying many of the poor souls who have reached the pinnacle of their professions through the violence it sanctions.  This is an obvious cause for concern, and the ripple effects are tremendous.  And I'm not talking about the pros and cons of ESPN apparently backing away from the project at the NFL's behest

Does ESPN still do this segment?

As impressive as the documentary was in terms of outlining the effects of football on professional players, I think the most powerful segments may have involved the discussions of the Boston University analyses of the college and high school football players' brains.  Yes, it is downright scary for every parent to think that endgames like those endured by the likes of Mike Webster and Junior Seau could be the same for their 17-year-old kid who just wanted to play football like the guys he saw on TV.  Not for me, not for my kids.  We'll find another sport.

It's funny: I'm headed up to South Bend, Indiana in a little over a week to catch the Notre Dame-Southern Cal game.  I'm genuinely mixed about it, and not just because the Irish are in the "two-loss/no national championship/ticket selloff" mode.  I'm mixed because I'm going to be sitting in the stands for hours, cheering for young men to inflict brain damage as they pound each other into submission.  I was OK with it before I knew what was happening out there on the gridiron, but now I know.  And I can't unlearn what I've learned.  The knowledge has changed me, and it's changed my perspective on football.  The sport just isn't as much fun to watch because of what I now know.  

The saddest part of all this is that I don't think that tackle football can be "fixed" to make it reasonably safe and still palatable to the public.  The foundation of the sport is the collision, the violent clash between offense and defense.  The force of these collisions, even at the high school level, can be the equivalent to a 25 MPH care crash.  And the players are getting over 1,000 of these a year because of exposure in practices as well as games.  Without going to flag football, which I just don't see America embracing, I guess our country is at a crossroads.  Are we willing to continue embracing the gladiator sport that has permeated our society all the way down to pee-wee level?  And if enough people say, "No," what then?  

But this is a hockey blog, so let's try to talk about hockey in light of what we've learned.  I think the preceding paragraph is a good place to start.

First off, the NHL is a lower-tier league than the NFL.  They have much less money at their disposal so I have to presume that they spend less on things that don't bring them medical research.  I have to believe that the NHL has a miniscule amount of hard scientific research in comparison to the NFL.  Should that be the case, I bet a certain diminutive commissioner is feeling just a little better about his league's prospects today.

I firmly believe that the foundation of hockey is not brute force and violence but rather skill.  By that, I mean that the goal in hockey is to move, shoot and score.  It is not to go over or through people.  Look at the sport's greatest players.  Was Wayne Gretzky a tough guy?  Did Mario Lemieux lay the lumber every chance he could get?  What are Sidney Crosby's hit statistics?

That's not to say that violence and hockey are not intertwined and have not been for years, as this 1963 video of Montreal Canadien Lou Fontinato's career-ending neck injury reminds us:

The thing is, we knew about the breaks and blood back then.  We only now know about the issue of brain injuries.  And hockey, in my estimation, doesn't need to be as violent to weather the inevitable storm of health science findings and corresponding public scrutiny.

I honestly believe that the National Hockey League is trying desperately to work through this morass of competing interests.  Without question, the NHL sells violence.  Care to debate this point?

Straight from the NHL itself, the Top Ten Hits of 2013!

At the same time, what frustrates me is that the NHL has much more than violence upon which to hang its hat.  Take the examples of the legendary players mentioned earlier.  Or the Hertl fourth goal, for instance, which was the topic of the evening in the hockey world.  Does the NHL really need to push violence when they could be selling skill and talent?  They know their target markets, however, and their marketing guys know how to reach those targets...I guess.

The hockey-watching market appears to enjoy violence, and violence is clearly in the game to this day, so let's try to address it rationally.  In my estimation, the NHL has have a two-headed "violence monster" on their hands, and that's both fighting and on-ice play.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Fighting as permitted in the NHL right now is downright silly.  It could go away forever, and I wouldn't mind one bit.  Now revoke the instigator penalty rule and allow fighting in the course of on-ice policing, and I'd be much more circumspect.  But fighting right now means as much to hockey as Cheerios does to driving a car.

Fighting in and of itself does not make a hockey brain injury epidemic, especially fighting as permitted these days.  Most players don't fight.  Fights don't happen in every game.  If anything, it's an issue of severity over frequency.  When a big fight happens, the injuries probably have the potential to be quite severe.  Thing is, the fights just don't happen all that often.

It's the novelty of fighting in relation to every other "major" sport that makes hockey stand out. According to the rules, you can't fight in professional football.  You can't fight in professional baseball.  You can't fight in professional basketball.  But you can fight in hockey, so the highlight shows bring the titillation that you can't find in any other sport....FIGHTING!  And thus hockey is "the fighting sport".

Fighting in hockey has been shown to cause many of the same symptoms as prize fighting, at least in some cases.  Remember, fighter extraordinaire Bob Probert was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  (And I genuinely feel for the likes of Jared Boll, for he likely has a long road ahead of him.)  But I would have to see a whole lot of data to lump the brains of the entirety of professional hockey players in with the crazy little fraternity of NHL fighters.  Again, severity, not frequency.

Then there's the on-ice conduct issue, and that's a much more challenging one.  Violence is ingrained in the game.  Hockey is a tough, physical sport.  It is fast.  Players have blades on their feet and are swinging sticks at solid rubber pucks.  The playing surface is a sheet of ice encased with plate glass walls.  Heck, it's the only sport I know of that tracks "Hits" as a meaningful statistic...even when it probably isn't!  (Oh, how many times have my buddy Chris and I chuckled at how the Columbus Blue Jackets dominated in the Hits department while getting destroyed on the scoreboard...)

Silliness aside, I respect what hockey is ("Broad Street Bullies" ethic aside) and am not entirely certain that all violent play could or should be eliminated from hockey.  But how to keep hockey "tough" without being overly "violent"?  I believe that the league is in the same boat - both for economic and cultural reasons.  From my perspective, I think that there is merit in giving defensemen space to use their body to stop a rush, or in allowing forwards to do the same to advance their forward progress toward the goal.  As for the league, I'm guessing that they feel similar...that, and they like the money the sport generates as is.

With regard to "League of Denial", I'm also hard-pressed to believe that the brain injury exposure rate is anywhere close to NFL levels for non-fighting NHLers.  I'd have to see evidence showing that professional ice hockey play is as physically punishing as professional football - as in, "multiple car crash" bad - before changing my mind.  As I mentioned, I am guessing that the NHL has a severity problem, not a frequency problem, when it comes to brain injuries.  The NFL has both problems.

I'm giving the benefit of the doubt here, but I think (hope?) that the NHL is recognizing critical problem areas and is trying to address them.  A great example is Rule 48, addressing illegal checks to the head.  The league seems to tweak the rule on a continuous basis.  The league doesn't want concussions.  They don't want star players like Sidney Crosby sitting on the sidelines for over a year; they want their players on the ice and helping generate ticket sales and public interest for the sport.  The league is trying to administer an increasingly faster flowing game, keep it entertaining and keep the players as safe as possible.

There's so much more to say, both off of what I saw and what I'm thinking.  But let's stop here.  In conclusion, I sincerely hope that the NHL learns from the NFL's many mistakes as outlined in "League of Denial" and does the right thing in keeping the game viable for years to come.

What the right thing is, though...that's the big question.

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