Shortly after receiving a letter from Sen. Richard Blumenthal to address “the safety of your sport,” and the possible connection between concussions chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), NHL commissioner Gary Bettman seemed very eager to respond. “Senator Blumenthal doesn’t have his facts straight,” Bettman said at the time, “and we’ll use this as an opportunity to explain to him why he’s so misinformed.”
And in true Bettman fashion, the commissioner did exactly that by sending Blumenthal a 24-page response recently that reiterated in crystal clear language his continued denial of a link between concussions and CTE. And again in true Bettman form, he got directly to the heart of the matter. In fact, the second sentence basically sums up the tone of the entire letter. It reads: “We very much appreciate this opportunity to share with you important information on these topics, particularly because we are concerned that some of your questions in your letter appear to be premised on misconceptions that have been repeatedly promoted in the media by the plaintiffs’ counsel who are presently pursuing concussion-related litigation against the NHL.”
And there you have it. Bettman is paid roughly the same as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are, in part to take the bullets for the league. Does Bettman actually believe there is no relationship between concussions and CTE? Perhaps he actually does. If so, he can join the climate change deniers in terms of being in the minority. By saying that the link between concussions and CTE “remains nascent,” then providing a number of examples of that nascence, he certainly attempts to make a convincing case.
In his letter, Bettman points to a couple of recent studies. One of them was a 2014 study by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association that, “longitudinal research that can directly associate concussions and subconcussive impact with cognitive health…has not yet been completed.” (Italics are ours.) He also references a study by the National Institutes of Health that warns the medical community that it is important to understand that it is, “not yet possible to correlate clinical symptoms or future brain health with the signature pathologic feature of CTE.” (Bolding and italics are Bettman’s.)
So let’s take stock here. Bettman deliberately used the word “nascent” to describe the link between concussions and CTE. That word means it’s in its infancy, with one definition saying, “just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential.” Then he points out two studies that claim it’s not yet possible to make the link. Then he goes on to say, in his own words, that, “leading scientists and public institutions have made similar observations, emphasizing that the relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of CTE remains unknown.” (Italics are ours.)
The key word here is “yet”. Does Bettman know for certain whether or not there is a direct link between concussive blows to the head and CTE? Of course he doesn’t. Do the greatest minds in research and the top experts in the field of brain trauma know anything certain? Clearly, they do not. Nobody knows and what’s more, nobody really seems to know when there will be a breakthrough in this area. As Bettman’s letter to Blumenthal states, it will likely be five to 10 years before CTE can be diagnosed in living patients.
The letter to Blumenthal goes to great pains – many, many times – to emphasize the link between concussions and CTE is not clear. And Bettman is right, which means there might be a link, but there might not be one. Nobody seems to know.
So why take a chance with it? Why would you not want to ensure the players have the safest environment possible when it comes to blows to the head? The NHL could mandate an automatic and substantial suspension for a headshot, whether deliberate or accidental. It could ban players from bare knuckle punching each other in the head. (Bettman says in his letter that the NHL, “has worked to reduce fighting,” when in reality, fighting is organically declining because one-dimensional players can no longer compete.) It could give some teeth to its Department of Player Safety. And it could seriously sanction players such as Dennis Wideman, who refuse to leave the bench when a concussion is suspected, then go out and hit a linesman, then claim it was because he was in a concussed state.
From hockey people, we hear a lot about this debate coming down to awareness, recognition and treatment. It’s not very often you hear about prevention, though. Even less, it’s about changing the culture of violence in hockey that leads to blows to the head, which leads to concussions, which may or may not lead to CTE.
Bettman isn’t doing the approximately 700 players in the NHL any favors by framing the discussion the way he has. It doesn't matter what he thinks. For that matter, it doesn't matter what the experts think. What matters is what is fact. And in the absence of clear facts one way or the other, it's best to not take chances. By continuing to tilt at windmills by blaming the media and the plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuit, he and the league continue to put NHL players in danger.