The recent FRONTLINE investigation into the NFL‘s willful neglect of the risk to the league’s players of developing the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) — “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” — showed that the NFL has much bigger problems than the racial slur name of the Washington Redskins. While the name controversy certainly creates an image problem for the league, the evidence that the act of simply playing tackle football can cause fatal brain damage not just from big concussions, but from every minor hit from every snap of the ball, is something that imperils the very future of the game of football itself. After all, what parents in their right mind would want their child playing tackle football if there is even the thought that it could lead to CTE later in life?
But the discussion needs to expand to all contact sports where the head is exposed to hard hits, and that includes ice hockey. That also means the NHL could have a problem that, while not as epic in scope as football, is still something serious enough that the league could have to take dramatic action to prevent concussions and hits to the head.
This past summer, a study was released that found that tougher rules the NHL put in place have not decreased concussions. That includes Rule 48, which makes hits to the head illegal. Just this past week the NHL suspended Brad Stuart three games for a hit to Rick Nash‘s head. But is this a deterrent to future hits to the head? It seems not to be as the hits to the head continue.
The NHL, like the NFL, is in denial about the damage these head hits are doing to the players. Both leagues are putting profit above protecting their players because they are afraid that altering the game too much and making it less violent will turn away fans. That is a shame because there is a real opportunity here to teach a new generation how to tackle and body check without making contact with the head.
The alternative to fundamentally changing the way hockey and football is played is for the concussions to continue while the public increasingly sees the hypocrisy of the NFL and NHL promoting cancer awareness while every game their players are at risk of developing CTE.