One member of a powerful U.S. congress committee that asked Gary Bettman for more information about what the NHL is doing about concussions was not impressed by the commissioner’s 15-page response and said Bettman sounds, “a little bit like the tobacco industry,” when it comes to linking concussions with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
Jan Schakowsky and four other Democratic congress members on the Republican-controlled Committee on Energy and Commerce wrote to Bettman Oct. 6 asking him seven questions concerning everything from the league’s concussion protocol to the place of fighting in the game and what the league is doing for concussion prevention. Bettman responded to the letter Oct. 24. We at THN.com have obtained copies of both letters and are making them available below.
Schakowsky said she still finds it hard to believe that Bettman continues to downplay the possible link between concussions and CTE, saying Bettman spends a good part of his response, “debunking the science or at least questioning it. It feels a little bit like the tobacco industry. ‘Oh there’s no connection,’ and ‘It hasn’t been proven,’ and ‘We don’t really know.’ But I think there’s so much evidence now.”
Schakowsky’s comments come on the heels of the news that Kevin Turner, one of the lead plaintiffs in the NFL settlement over concussions and brain trauma, was found to have died of an advanced form of CTE last March at the age of 46. “This is not ALS, this is CTE,” Dr. Anne McKee, the director for Boston University’s CTE Center told reporters. “The severity of Mr. Turner’s CTE was extraordinary and unprecedented for an athlete who died in his 40s. McKee went on to say that Turner, who had played tackle football from the age of five until he retired from the NFL at the age of 30, “was riddled with CTE, one of the most striking cases we’ve ever seen,” and that, “we have seen a clear trend that the length of (a football) career is associated with CTE.”
There is also a pending class action lawsuit from former NHL players over the concussion issue. Schakowsky spoke with two of the players involved -- former NHLers Dale Purinton and Dan LaCouture – and said both of them continue to struggle with post-concussion issues. That was one of the main reasons she added her name to the letter to Bettman. Schakowsky said she was disappointed by Bettman’s portrayal of fighting in the NHL. In the letter, he pointed out that just two percent of concussions are caused by fighting and reiterated the notion that some fighting is necessary to keep skilled players from being targeted by opponents.
He also placed a fair bit of responsibility on the NHL Players’ Association, saying the NHLPA, “has consistently maintained that the rules regarding fighting in the game are terms and conditions of employment and, therefore, are mandatory subjects of collective bargaining.” But that’s not exactly the case. The league could, as deputy commissioner Bill Daly told THN recently, implement any rule it sees fit with or without the approval of the competition committee. The NHLPA reserves the right to challenge it by filing a grievance, but there is nothing stopping the league from enacting any rule.
“I may be reading this wrong but it sounds to me a bit of a defense of fighting. I’m confused about that,” Schakowsky said. “I thought the questioning of the fighting and the rules might be a bit of a step backward. So it wasn’t really an impressive answer. Certainly not one that would satisfy the players that I met.”
Bettman pointed out in his response that the original letter to him noted that the league did not have a mandatory period in which a player assessed with a concussion must sit out. But he said league rules clearly state that any player who has been diagnosed with a concussion cannot return to either a practice or a game on the day the event occurred. “Thus, your suggestion that the NHL’s Concussion Protocol has, ‘no mandatory period of time that a player must be withheld from play following a concussion,’ takes part of the Concussion Protocol out of context.” To which Schakowsky responded, “I don’t see all that much mandatory off the ice for one day. That’s not a lot.”
With congressional elections five days away, this is probably going to be a back-burner item for a while, but Schakowsky said she and the others who sent the letter to Bettman will stay on the case. And Schakowsky is known for asking the difficult questions. In fact, she is the one who asked Jeff Miller, the NFL’s vice-president for health and safety policy, if there was a link between football and degenerative brain diseases such as CTE, to which Miller replied, “The answer to that is certainly yes.” It was seen as a game changer in the issue of sports and brain injuries. “We’re not giving up. We’ll talk to the signers of the letter and see how we can follow up more,” Schakowsky said. “There are plenty of fertile things in that letter to follow up on and to ask for more explanation.”
Bettman Letter on Scribd
Letter to Bettman. on Scribd