On Feb. 6, Ralph Nader, in his position as Founder of the League of Fans, a "sports reform project ... to encourage social & civic responsibility in sports industry & culture," and Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director of the very same organization, penned an open letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
The point of the letter was fairly simple to ascertain: head injuries are a major problem in ice hockey and the NHL can do wonders by more staunchly enforcing its ban on head shots and banning fighting all together. As the most influential league in the world, Nader argues that once the NHL takes such steps most others will follow.
It's time to act. The National Hockey League must take immediate steps to ban fighting and outlaw all blows to the head. And you, Mr. Bettman, as league commissioner, must lead the way.
Fighting in hockey can no longer be a long-debated issue pitting those who find it barbaric and unsportsmanlike and those who argue that it's an integral part of the fabric of the game. The growing mound of research on sports concussions and brain injuries has taken the fighting issue to an entirely different level. We're talking about short-and-long-term damage to the brain, the very foundation of who we are as people.
Puck Daddy's Ryan Lambert had a problem with the open letter. As he is wont to do, Lambert tore into Nader. He called the notions put forth by the former Presidential candidate "stupid" and "wrong." Lambert's biggest problem was with Nader linking the deaths of Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak to their careers as enforcers.
And that's where he loses any credibility he might have had as a guy who successfully made the roads safer for tens of millions of people worldwide. An admittedly horrific string of tragic events, the causes for which are disparate, cannot be tied directly to fighting except by the most ghoulish of agenda-pushers which, incidentally, is what Nader is.
And, as these stories typically devolve, Nader and Reed (who I'll refer to as "Nader" for simplicity's sake) offered a retort to Lambert.
Additionally, while nobody can definitively say that fighting contributed to the deaths of three enforcers, Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, this past year, it's certainly possible that the brain trauma they experienced on the ice in their roles as enforcers was a contributing factor to their tragic deaths. In fact, we know for sure that Boogard was suffering from advanced stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. CTE symptoms include memory loss, depression, impulsiveness and drug and alcohol addiction. It can only be diagnosed by examining the brain after death.
There's more nuance to the arguments when you read the entire stories. Nader's original letter does get a couple things wrong, while Lambert does misstate some of Nader's stances. Nader tenuously, maybe unintentionally, links general youth hockey, where fighting is almost uniformly banned, to junior hockey, where it uniformly is not.
The real portion of this spat that merits discussion is outside of the minor squabbles: should fighting be banned in hockey?
Logically speaking, yes. Of course it should.
In a part of Lambert's original dissection of Nader's letter referenced earlier, he states:
But saying that fighting is directly related to the number of concussions in the NHL these days, as Nader does, is obviously and very plainly stupid.
On the contrary, entertaining notions that punches to the head do not directly effect the number of head injuries suffered in the NHL is fairly absurd.
Lambert's indirectly making a point -- tangentially when he references Nader's age, lack of recently viewing an NHL game -- that fighting has diminished over the years, so it shouldn't be the major cause of the number of concussions "these days."
Rather, new, unspecified developments such as bigger players, faster skaters, no more two-line pass offsides, and changes in hitting style and intent could/would be more significant factors than fighting.
Add in increased concussion detection capabilities and yeah, concussions will be higher. Or seem like it. The numbers are the same, we're just discovering more.
Fighting's not doing it, or at least not doing the most damage. And if you do force through a removal of fighting, you're still going to have concussions, blows to the head. Nader's just using brain injuries to make an uneducated stance on fighting in the sport for some misguided stance in defense of children, one that would get less attention if he simply took these arguments to junior leagues themselves. Or so Lambert proposes.
But there's still something there that can't be ignored.
The big thing Nader brings up is CTE. He explained it above, but again, the degenerative brain disease occurs only after a sustained period of abuse to the head over a number of years. As a disease that can only be discovered post-mortem, people aren't diagnosed with it while they're still alive. But it has been found in a number of deceased boxers, professional wrestlers, football players and, yes, hockey players.
Those hockey players include Boogard, Rypien and Belak.
They all didn't die from CTE specifically, they died via either suicide or drug overdose.
Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon famed for his work with CTE, said this about the disease's effects on sufferers:
We'll never know with any certainty when someone commits suicide whether CTE played a role. We do know CTE attacks the portion of the brain that controls functions of memory, emotion, addictive behavior and impulse control, the latter associated with suicide. And so we're clear, in some cases the people involved may well have had emotional issues before its onset. But every time I read or hear about these tragedies, my first question is, ‘Did CTE play a role?'
So Lambert's right in a sense. We don't know for certain, and we never will. Then again, it's not hard to notice a pattern here. Correlation doesn't always equate to causation, but by the time we catch CTE in the brains of enough dead athletes, the pile may already be sky high.
And then, it'll already be too late, at least for those meeting an early demise.
Of course, the extent of trauma to the brain the three players in question received wasn't limited to fighting, as Nader rightly concedes. They assuredly took and delivered a number of hits to the head over their hockey careers. But they were all also definitively fighters, heavyweights who made rosters solely for their fighting prowess. Of all players in the NHL, they're the ones that are going to take the most blows to the head.
Concussions can happen to anyone, some players are more susceptible than others, but fighters are, by far, the most "at risk" player archetype.
If the goal is to minimize concussions, and the main way to do that is to minimize blows to the head, you naturally have to remove fighting, the one place where two professional athletes can square up and bare-knuckle box for arbitrary reasons. It might lead to some guys losing their jobs, but it also might save their lives.
And when young hockey players finally see that there is no fighting in the NHL, they won't see a need to fight at lower levels of hockey to prove themselves. They'll just try to improve their game, or find out they weren't made for the big leagues.
If hits to the head are met with suspensions and scorn because they're dangerous, why shouldn't fighting get more than a round of applause and a slap on the wrist?
Now, I'm not pushing the argument here that you're stupid if you think fighting should remain in the NHL. It's been ingrained as a pseudo-integral part of the game seemingly forever, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it's fun to watch two guys beat the hell out of each other while balancing on ice.
But if we really do care about cutting down debilitating concussions, the types that the Sidney Crosbys, Chris Prongers and Keith Primeaus of the world have had to deal with, there's no way to get around banning the punching of each other in the head.
If we don't actually care, we can just ignore mounting scientific evidence stick to the status quo.