Coming to a head

Brains haven’t always been such a big deal in the sports world. As the old adage suggests, brawn — tempered by agility and speed — is the stereotypical currency of elite athletics, and hockey is no exception. But thanks, most recently to Sid the Kid, brains are in the spotlight all across the hockey world as league officials at every level, from high school leagues to the NHL, jump on the head trauma prevention bandwagon — and it makes me wonder what took so long.

At Grantland, Ken Dryden called the recent safety push the “head smart” movement.

Or, as a Lehigh Valley, PA official put it in a letter to local high school coaches, “There is a conscious effort to reduce concussions by eliminating body contact that attempts to separate the player from his head.”

Like I said, I’m not sure why the concerted effort to prevent “attempts to separate the player from his head” is a new phenomenon. This seems like (get ready for the pun) a complete no-brainer. But apparently, the head-separating business is what makes hockey, well, hockey.

To put a finer point on it, the biggest obstacle to improving the safety of the game is the fear that some essential and defining aspect of the game will be lost if players aren’t free to be as violent. Allow me to qualify: I love the devious, impassioned nature of the game as much as Don Cherry loves to clash. After all, I just wrote that I fell in love with the sport when I saw Sandy McCarthy park his butt on a goalie. So I get it, there’s an enthralling element of chicanery to the game that also makes it inherently dangerous.

It should go without saying that head trauma is no joke, but in a sports community that values hard hitting and a “no pain, no gain” mentality, that standard health PSA has been something of a revelation.
Think of Sidney Crosby what you like (I’m a Flyers fan — you can guess what I think), but his experience has done more than motivate rules changes at various levels of the sport. It’s also drawn attention to the harrowing accounts of former players suffering quietly with debilitating long-term side effects, finally bringing to light what all the machismo and self-sacrificial bravado of hockey has tried to tamp out. And yet, the whole enterprise is still tempered by a pervasive assumption that if players’ brains are adequately protected, the beauty, the brawn — or whatever that enigmatic quality is — of the game will be lost.

A look at the last year for Sidney Crosby gives you just a hint that whatever the hockey establishment must give up to prevent head trauma, does not come close to what he, and hundreds of other players, have given up in sustaining it. Anyone who still thinks that 9-ish months of headaches, nausea, dizziness, diminished brain function, and who knows what else, are small prices to pay for the glorious spirit of the game, should read TIME’s sickening report describing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — “a degenerative brain disease found in victims who have suffered repeated blows to the head,” that can only be diagnosed post-mortem and can lead to “loss of cognitive abilities, impulsive behavior, and depression.”

Three hockey players either committed suicide or died of substance overdose this summer and the connection between their deaths and mental illness has raised questions about the possibility that these men could have all been developing CTE. According to the TIME article, tests are being conducted on at least one of the deceased players.

The symptoms of CTE tend to develop late in life, but the consequences of severe head trauma can wreak havoc long before dementia sets in. Just take the tragic, yes, tragic demise of a star (and former Flyer) not unlike Crosby — Eric Lindros. Nine months is nothing compared to the radiating consequences of head trauma that the once-great Lindros has endured since he left the league.

What happened to Eric Lindros is not unique, but my fascination with what has become of him probably has to do with the fact that Lindros quite literally defined my childhood hockey experience. Growing up, Lindros was a Philadelphia hero, but Philly fans and the entire hockey world wrote him off for succumbing to his propensity for attracting concussions. His was a slow, excruciating fall from grace. In light of the NHL’s reaction to Sidney Crosby (which is appropriate), Adam Proteau of the The Hockey News believes the NHL and its fans now owe #88 an apology:

The hockey world owes a big-time, heartfelt apology to Eric Lindros. Remember him? The game’s Sidney Crosby before No. 87 ever got near an NHL rink? Long painted by the game’s establishment as the opposite of what a hockey player ought to be — self-interested and unwilling to bend to the traditions of the game — Lindros and his struggles have been vindicated by the passage of time. He now stands out as a clear harbinger of what was ahead for the sport.

I don’t know if an apology will cut it for Lindros or any of the other players who have been ridiculed for retiring from hockey as a result of concussions. But I do think that Lindros is a pretty clear symbol of this bizarre struggle against a status quo that holds that the life-long effects of head trauma are part-and-parcel of a game whose integrity is irrevocably yoked to its ruthless aggression, whatever the consequences.

In fact, just read the accounts of players who have lost their jobs, their wives or girlfriends, their personalities, their emotional, physical, and mental health as a result of head trauma and you’ll see that an apology won’t suffice.

What the players who have suffered (and are still suffering) might appreciate more than an apology in the long term is a rethink of what actually makes hockey great. Aside from speed, agility, and vision, hockey venerates selflessness and commitment, admirable values that become supremely dangerous when taken to their extremes, especially on ice. Most players, most fans, most coaches, and most officials don’t realize or never acknowledge that when we hold players to a standard that demands they sacrifice their bodies no matter what the cost, we also implicitly ask them to bear the burden, and sometimes the ignominy, of those injuries off the ice and out of the spotlight, for the rest of their lives.

Many sports writer have wondered how you reform a game that seems to have violence in its DNA. But Howard Bryant reminds us that violence is not encoded, it’s cultural, and that means it’s up to the NHL and the demands of the fans to change the game:

A tension has always existed on the ice between hockey’s rough and rugged lawlessness and the beauty of its athletes’ skills. The roots of the game are thuggish in nature: tough Canadian men playing in tough economic conditions. As its glamour and profits increased, the game evolved — but not on par with other sport businesses, or society at large. . . The NHL has simply never quite been comfortable deciding what it wants to be, and has never quite concluded that the sport is strong enough, even among its core, to lose the constituency of fans who are drawn to its frontier justice. Or whether it wants to.

Nowhere in the rule book does it say that we can’t uphold the values we hold dear to hockey, but from a different vantage point — one that no longer sees severe bodily harm as the manifestation of those values. Because if the choice between protecting the lives of the players we supposedly love (or love to hate) and playing to some nostalgic idea of “frontier justice” isn’t an easy one to make, we are forced to confront the question: what kind of game are we actually trying to maintain?

Further reading on the NHL’s new concussion protocol: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/sports/hockey/15meetings.html

Yael Borofsky is a writer, editor, and Philadelphia sports fan living in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @yaelborofsky.

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3 Responses to “Coming to a head”
  1. Kevin says:

    YAEL IS AWESOME

  2. JP says:

    Good read!

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