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Few were surprised when the analysis of former NHL player Derek Boogaard revealed extensive brain damage and degeneration associated with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. The brain is not designed to take multiple traumatic hits and be unaffected by the damage. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 300 pound football player, an elite hockey player, or a housewife. The brain remains among the most vulnerable areas of the body, and no amount of physical training and conditioning will alter that fact.
Certain occupations in life involve an element of physical risk. Policemen get shot. Roofers fall off of roofs. Those in the military face risks constantly. Apparently, commercial fishing is quite dangerous too. The people who do these jobs know what the risk is and they decide to do the job anyway. It makes no sense to try to cover up the potential risks associated with any occupation, including athletics. Jobs that have a higher incidence of concussions and blows to the head put an individual at risk for CTE. CTE is the equivalent of environmentally caused dementia.
Apparently, the NHL is not convinced that there is a link between CTE and hockey. I am not sure what they are looking for as far as proof. Would they go as far as to agree that concussions happen relatively often in contact sports? Would they accept the fact that CTE is caused by repeated blows to the head? Give these athletes the facts and let them decide if they want to take on the risk of playing the sport. So many times an organization will try to underplay what might damage their immediate interests, and it results in a worse problem down the line!
It’s never easy to take a proactive stance on anything. This isn’t the first time I have struggled with trying to make peace with the idea that I love to watch hockey and football and yet I know there are very significant risks to the brain. Decades of working with brain injured clients has created this dilemma for me. In some ways, it seems hypocritical to be a fan of these sports and at the same time, point out what I see as a huge risk to people who play these sports. I can only imagine how difficult it would be if my life was and my livelihood was completely tied to these sports or promotion of these sports. Derek Boogaard’s brother still plays hockey because in his words, “What else would I do?”
It isn’t an easy problem to solve. Still, it would behoove the NHL and NFL to become actively cooperative in trying to discover what risks are involved in playing a sport especially revealing the worst of these consequences. Don’t hold anything back and let the players, their families and their health care providers make informed decisions about what to do. Also make necessary changes as a league to improve conditions and have policies in place to minimize risk where possible. However, the only way to arrive at a solution is to agree that there’s a problem. How much more evidence will be required before professional sports acknowledge significant link between potentially compromised brain function and contact sports? As the Minnesota Brain Injury Society stated in their 2010 Walk for Thought campaign: Play hard but play smart.