October 21, 2010
There's no avoiding the concussion issue in professional sports any longer.
It's everywhere, whether it's the NFL cracking down on helmet-to-helmet hits or horrific tales of concussed players' lives after retirement or a parade of head injuries in the NHL, including another one Wednesday night to Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty(notes) via Erik Cole(notes) of the Carolina Hurricanes:
According to Helene Elliott of the LA Times, it's a "possible concussion" for Doughty, which would be his first significant NHL injury.
Also significant this week for head injuries: The Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center Ice Hockey Summit: Action on Concussion, which has been ongoing in Rochester, Minn., and could be a landmark symposium for the future of player safety.
Jeff Klein of the New York Times has been chronicling the conference, including the fact that the concussion rate for women's NCAA hockey is higher than that for NCAA football; that "helmets are not the answer to reducing the high rates of concussion in hockey"; and the solution to the concussion issue most frequently suggested by the experts on hand: a total ban on all checks to the head, blindside or otherwise.
Check out the reporting, read the rest of the post, and then come back to this question in the comments:
Pass or Fail: Prohibiting any contact to the head on a check in the NHL, for the sake of player safety.
Coming up, news from the Mayo Clinic conference and the basis for these recommendations.
The N.H.L. averages about 75 concussions a season, said Dr. Paul Comper, a Toronto neuropsychologist and consultant for the players association. "In my opinion, really what you should do is get rid of all targeted head hits," Comper said. He called the N.H.L.'s adoption of its current head-checking rule "a step in the right direction."
Kerry Fraser, who retired as a referee in April after 29 seasons, said banning hits to the head was necessary.
"The N.H.L. must outlaw head hits," said Fraser, who criticized an N.H.L. explanatory video showing what the league called "an example of a legal shoulder check to the head." In the clip, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger(notes) uses his shoulder to strike the Rangers Jody Shelley(notes) in the head, snapping Shelley's head.
According to statistics in Comper's study, 60 percent of N.H.L. concussions come from checks delivered with the shoulder to the head.
Here's the Chris Pronger hit on Jody Shelley; wonder if they ever talk about this at team meals now?
From the Star Tribune, Dr. Michael Stuart of the Mayo Clinic said:
The suggestions proposed at the Mayo summit include a total ban on contact with the head, at all levels of hockey; mandatory education of coaches, parents, referees and physicians about how to recognize, treat and prevent concussions; and prohibiting athletes from returning to play until they are cleared by a doctor. When the conference ended, many participants pledged to keep working together, which is exactly what Smith and Stuart hoped.
"Change is not going to happen overnight,'' said Stuart, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center and chief medical officer for USA Hockey. "At the same time, the clock is ticking. If we say we need additional long-term injury research to validate any recommendation, there will be a lot of athletes who will suffer in the interim.''
And here is a news report from Vancouver Island about the conference and recent new rules in other sports for head injuries:
If you've read this blog, you know where we stand: Hockey is an inherently violent game, and the players in the NHL know that, as they aspired to reach the professional level.
The conference's suggestions for better medical evaluation and aftercare, as well as better education for everyone in hockey on all levels, is valorous. But a ban on contact with the head in the NHL isn't something with which we agree.
Getting injurious, blindside hits out of the NHL is (pardon the awful pun) a no-brainer for the league, and it's taken steps towards that end. Banning all hits to the head, at this point, will change the fundamentals of the game too dramatically.
Which is why, as the conference argues, you start with the kids. Ban head shots on lower levels, and you begin to change the culture. It's the same thing with fighting, which the conference also seeks to ban: There's a way to minimize it organically over the years that wouldn't require a formal "banning" in the NHL.
At this point, the argument for banning hits to the head in the NHL resembles the abstinence debate for teen sexuality: You can preach it all you want, but instincts and emotions could trump education and virtue. It's human nature; which is why any behavioral changes need to happen generationally and not with one swift change to the rulebook. Because that's how you make it a matter of respect rather a fear of recourse.