Gary Bettman met reporters in Chicago on Thursday night for Game 3 of the Western Conference Final, which meant he was going to get the Steve Montador question.
Bettman is fending off a few lawsuits related to concussions and players whose deaths were allegedly linked to brain injuries. One that’s in the works: The family of Steve Montador, the former Chicago Blackhawks and Buffalo Sabres defenseman who died in February, who was working with the same law firm handling Derek Boogaard’s wrongful death case against the NHL.
“The finding of widespread CTE in Steven's brain helps us all better understand that his brain was ravaged by disease and he was unable to control it,” they said in a statement. “We always knew that there might be black eyes, broken bones and soft tissue injuries -- but he never anticipated that playing the game he loved would result in such devastating impairment of his brain function. CTE changed everything."
What did Bettman have to say about this?
Well, he reiterated his stance that the science on concussions leading to CTE isn’t there yet, albeit in a clunky way. From CBS Chicago:
“From a medical science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one necessarily leads to the other,” said Bettman to reporters on hand. “I know there are a lot of theories, but if you ask people who study it, they tell you there is no statistical correlation that can definitively make that conclusion.”
This earned him a thorough trashing from David Haugh of the LA Times:
In a stunningly irresponsible comment for the commissioner of a contact sport to make in 2015, Bettman challenged the link between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)."From a medical and science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one necessarily leads to the other," Bettman said.
It's amazing Bettman could be heard speaking, what with his head in the sand. Even if Bettman was doing nothing more than publicly laying groundwork for an NHL legal defense, to claim with such authority that concussions might have no connection to CTE defied logic. Even if Bettman can find scientists to support his claim, dismissing CTE as a potential result of multiple concussions hardly reflects a man paid well to protect the game.
It also earned a rejoinder from Chris Nowinski, former wrestler and cofounder of the Boston University CTE Center:
If "necessarily" means "always," fine. If not, then "no evidence" is untrue. We have "some" pretty good evidence. https://t.co/QmNKqXoUNm
— Chris Nowinski (@ChrisNowinski1) May 22, 2015
Bettman stuck his foot in his mouth here a bit, as no logical analysis of the brain damage we’ve seen in contact sports where the head is targeted could indicate anything but a link between CTE and fequent brain injuries.
But he’s tackled this subject in a more nuanced way in the past, and that might have been where he was going here. Like when Bettman said we shouldn’t “over-conclude when the data isn’t there” on CTE following the deaths of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Boogaard in 2011.
The fact is that the links between concussions in sports and genetics, and especially within the context of CTE, were still being debated in the medical community in 2014. The question the league’s had about that science is whether some athletes are more genetically predisposed to suffer certain types of brain injuries and whether CTE is only a threat to a specific portion of the NHL population when their playing days are over.
So that, at least, is what Bettman might have been getting at.
Or he was just trafficking in intentional obfuscation because the NHL is facing several lawsuits and he’s being compelled to testify in at least one of them. There's that, too.
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