The Problems with Football and Hockey

January 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

I watched both the AFC and NFC Championship games last weekend.  I haven’t watched as much football or even NHL hockey this year and I’ve been trying to figure out why.  In terms of hockey, my team sucks, but, I’ve remained a fan of hockey in general when the Habs have sucked in the past.  When it comes to the NFL, to be a Chicago Bears fan is to know misery.  They’ve sucked almost continually for the past 35 years.  So I’ve watched a lot of football, despite my team being in last place.

But this year, something has changed.  I have long had issues with football, the injuries, the concussions. I played football when I was younger.  I have lingering injury issues, and I don’t want to think about how many concussions I’ve had.  No one cared about head injuries in the late 80s/early 90s.  And then there’s the question of football and CTE.  I wrote about this a few months ago, when the Commissioner of the Canadian FootbalL League, Randy Ambrosie (a former CFL player) insisted that we don’t know if there’s a connection between CTE and football.  Funny, the NFL has admitted there is a connection.

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Houston Texans QB Tom Savage convulsing after hitting his head on the turf after being hit.

Hockey isn’t doing much better.  We have been subject to a steady stream of stories about ex-NHL players being caught up in drug addiction, depression, and early death.  This has happened to stars like Theoren Fleury and Mike Richards, and it’s happened to former enforcers, like Chris Nilan, Derek Boogard, and so on.  Earlier this month, I read an article about former enforcer Matt Johnson, who was in jail in Los Angeles after vandalizing a Denny’s restaurant on New Year’s Eve.  Johnson claimed to be homeless and refused legal help, at least initially.  His dad reported how worried he was about his son, and how much he’s tried to help him in recent years.  Or how about Kevin Stevens, who was one of the greatest power forwards of the early 90s, who devolved into addiction to painkillers?

To me, it seems that these athletes are sacrificing their bodies, their brains, and their futures to play.  And, yes, part of that is their own choice.  But, there are also structural issues here.  Teams have historically pushed their players to play injured or not.  Teams have pushed painkillers on players.  And then there’s brain injuries.  The NFL has come to an agreement with a group of former players for payouts for concussion damage, though there are problems there.

But that doesn’t do much for the current game.  Think of Houston quarterback Tom Savage continuing to play after appearing to convulse after hitting his head on the ground.  Or how about Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship game, when he was knocked silly by Barry Church of the Jacksonville Jaguars.  After the hit on Gronkowski, the Jaguars celebrated, and the commentators, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo (a former NFL quarterback), just carried on as if nothing major happened.

Then there’s the NHL.  A group of former players has brought a class-action suit against it.  The league’s response? To challenge the science behind the linkages between hockey and brain injuries.  Seriously.  It is otherwise doing next to nothing, beyond a ‘concussion protocol’ that is as much of a joke as the NFL’s.  This week, TSN in Canada reported that former NHL star Eric Lindros, whose career (and that of his brother) was ended by concussions, and Montreal Canadiens’ team physician Dr. David Mulder, approached the NHL last year and challenged the league to donate $31 million (or $1 million per team) to fund research in brain trauma. The league has ignored them.

And so, ultimately, I am finding it increasingly difficult to watch NFL or CFL football or NHL hockey.  Watching 200+ pound men smash into each other at full speed, in many cases purposely targeting the head is nauseating.  And wondering about the long-term effect of concussions is equally nauseating.

Both hockey and football are brutally physical sports.  Hockey is also played at incredible speeds on ice.  That’s part of the game.  Hitting is central to both.  I don’t have a problem with that.  I do have a problem with blatant head shots.  I have a problem with pumping players full of painkillers to get them back on the ice/field.  I have a problem with professional leagues denying a connection between concussions, head shots, and CTE.  I have a problem with commentators and fans acting like these kinds of hits are acceptable.

And until fans and advertizers really do question these forms of brutality against the bodies of professional athletes, nothing is going to change.

Football and CTE

November 27, 2017 § 3 Comments

This past weekend was Grey Cup weekend in Canada.  The Toronto Argonauts and the Calgary Stampeders met at TD Place Stadium in the Nation’s Capital.  The Argos won 27-24 in another classic.  In the lead up to the game, Canadian Football League Commissioner Randy Ambrosie declared that ‘we don’t know‘ if there is a connection between CTE and football.  Around this time last year, the former CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said the same thing and was roundly criticized.  Ambrosie is being suitably raked over the coals.

But here’s the thing, Ambrosie should know better.  He is a former CFL player himself, he was a lineman for the Stampeders, Argonauts, and Edmonton Eskimos (why no one protests this name is beyond me).  Ironically, he retired due to injuries.  And he should know about the damage done to his own body by the game.  I am certainly aware of what football did to my body, between the cranky knees, shoulders, and, of course, the concussions (added to, of course, by hockey, where I played goalie).

More to the point, it looks pretty damn likely that there is a connection between football and CTE.  This is just media one story from this past summer (out of many) that reports on a study that found that 88% of brains donated by now-deceased former football players had some form of CTE.  CTE was also more prevalent in former professional players, as compared, to, say, high school players.

This is not complete proof positive of the link between football and CTE because CTE can only be diagnosed after death, and so far, studies have concluded nothing more than the commonality of the disease being present in the brains of former football players, as opposed to those who did not play.  But this isn’t a direct proof.  But, recent research has found that it may be possible to determine the presence of CTE in the brains of the living.   This may allow researchers to positively correlate football and CTE.

But, we are not there yet.  Nonetheless, Ambrosie’s comments are asinine at best, recklessly dangerous at worst.  And, either way, profoundly stupid.

The CFL has done a lot of good to reduce the stress on players’ bodies, from adding a 3rd bye-week during the season to banning full-contact practices.  But, it is still the subject of a class-action lawsuit focusing on brain damage (in this light, Ambrosie’s comments make some sense, but the better thing to have done would’ve been to deflect the question).

But Ambrosie’s statements last week threaten to undo that.  We should all expect better from the Canadian Football League.

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