Football has become synonymous with concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. However, other sports have found themselves embroiled in political and legal fights regarding head injuries and long-term health consequences.
In hockey, the Commissioner of the NHL has declined to admit a link between concussions and CTE. In response to written questions from Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Gary Bettman stressed that the medical research remains in an early phase and argued that lawyers and the media have presumed a connection and other medical facts without sufficient scientific support.
“The science regarding CTE, including on the asserted ‘link’ to concussions that you reference, remains nascent, particularly with respect to what causes CTE and whether it can be diagnosed by specific clinical symptoms,” Bettman wrote, via the New York Times. “The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of CTE remains unknown.”
As explained by John Branch of the Times, Bettman “repeatedly blamed the media for spreading the fear of CTE, and accused the plaintiffs in the concussion case for a public relations assault on the topic.” Bettman pointed out that the brain of former NHL player Todd Ewen, who committed suicide in 2015 at the age of 49, did not show signs of CTE.
“Ultimately, the most concerning aspect of the current public dialogue about concussions in professional sports (as well as youth sports) is the implicit premise that hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of individuals who have participated in contact sports at the high school, collegiate and/or professional levels are not only at a high level of risk for, but actually more than likely to develop, a degenerative, irreversible brain disease (i.e., CTE), and that they should be informed as such,” Bettman wrote. “The NHL chooses to be guided on this very serious subject by the medical consensus of experts examining the science, not the media hype driven in part by plaintiffs’ counsel.”
Regardless of the science, it’s obviously not beneficial for the human brain to absorb repeated injuries. Bettman’s letter, which if written by the Commissioner of the NFL would surely result in much greater attention and criticism, echoes a point that many have made: The scientific research still has a long way to go regarding questions like the prevalence of CTE, the causes of CTE, the symptoms of CTE, and the consequences of CTE.
Plenty of former pro football and hockey players believe that serious cognitive problems for them are not simply possible but inevitable; the medical evidence has yet to reach that point. Regardless of the specific nature and degree of the risk and the specific nature and extent of the potential harm, it’s known that head injuries should be taken seriously, and it’s assumed that too many of them can lay the foundation for long-term health problems.
Even with that knowledge, people are still choosing to engage in sports and other activities that entail a risk of head trauma. At some point, the medical evidence will provide much greater information about the long-term health risks. For now, the vague-but-generally-accepted (and by all appearances accurate) notion that concussions can cause cognitive problems later in life is not deterring many adults with the physical gifts necessary to play professional sports from doing so.