By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is a lawyer. He’s worked in professional sports for 35 years. He’s been in charge of the NHL since 1993. While many have rightfully questioned his success in that role, there is no questioning the fact that the man knows what he is doing.
And in a current debate over the effect of hits to the head in the sport of hockey, Bettman is digging in his heels.
In a 23-page response letter to Senator Richard Blumenthal, Bettman adamantly argued that because no conclusive links of concussions and CTE can be made, then no links between concussions and CTE can be considered.
The letter, published by The New York Times, made very clear the stance of the commissioner and the NHL.
“The science regarding CTE, including on the asserted ‘link’ to concussions that you reference, remains nascent, particularly with respect to what causes CTE and whether it can be diagnosed by specific clinical symptoms,” Bettman wrote. “It is particularly important not to suggest to current and/or former athletes that because of their professional sport participation, they may have a scientifically-established or diagnosable degenerative disease, which may only instill unwarranted fears that could result in potentially tragic consequences, including long-term depression and even suicide. It is this medical consensus that has guided, and will continue to guide, the NHL on the topic of CTE, unless and until there is sound medical evidence to the contrary that can be relied upon.”
There, the commissioner is arguing that the league believes it is best to not warn players of potential brain damage, all in the name of the safety of the league’s players.
It’s a fascinating stance. As anybody who’s ever spent one minute studying neuroscience can attest, reaching solid conclusions with anything regarding the brain is tremendously difficult. And certainly, as Bettman points out numerous times, the research into CTE is in its infancy, and it’s much too early for any doctors and researchers to conclusively declare CTE to come as a direct result from suffering repeated blows to the head while playing a violent sport.
At the same time, the numbers thus far are staggering. As of September 2015, 87 of 91 former NFL players whose brains were donated to the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University’s lab had CTE. Moreover, 131 of the 165 donated brains of former football players at all levels were found to have CTE. That’s 79.4 percent. The samples are biased, yes, because brains tend to only get donated when there are suspicions of brain trauma.
Obviously, football is a different animal, but professional hockey players are often subjected to hits to the head that take place at speeds faster than can take place away from a sheet of ice, and the results on numerous players have been clear to see. And Bettman and his fellow NHL executives have taken notice for some time, as made evident by an unsealed email discussion from 2011 in which they debated the impact on fighting and brain trauma.
Also in 2011, Bettman asked then-disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan if any plays on a certain night resulted in concussions. When Shanahan replied, “Not so far,” Bettman enthusiastically replied, “Night is young!”
Yet with litigation from former players still pending, Bettman is choosing to ignore the significant progress made in CTE research and is instead clinging to the uncertainty that will always be present in the early stages of brain research.
From a legal and liability standpoint, it’s shrewd. From a humanity standpoint, it’s despicable.
This much was evident when Bettman issued a 20-page ruling back in February about why he was upholding his 20-game suspension issued to Dennis Wideman. In that ruling, if a doctor concluded anything with less than 100 percent full confidence, Bettman took such conclusions to have no bearing whatsoever in reality. For Bettman, it either had to be black or white. Even a hint of gray meant the entire statement from a medical professional needed to be thrown out.
In that same ruling, Bettman failed to admonish the Calgary Flames, a member club of the NHL, for numerous failures in protecting the player’s health.
So surely, the letter sent this week by Bettman was not surprising, but rather a continuance of a position that frankly will be hard to fully disprove for many years to come. In the later pages of the letter, Bettman goes to great lengths to extol the virtues of the NHL in its efforts to combat concussions. And that’s fine — but after the opening five pages, all of those efforts look to be a bare-minimum make-good effort from a league that can’t outright ignore concussions but has its limits in believing science.
The short-term “benefits,” for lack of a better term, will be protection for the league from lawsuits filed by injured and/or deceased former players and their families. But the long-term impact will almost certainly show that the NHL chose to stubbornly stand on the wrong side of history.
And in doing so, much like the NFL, Bettman is taking a firm stance against the humans who make the NHL what it is. Without the players, there is no NHL, there is no revenue, and there is no commissioner making roughly $10 million per year.
Just look at the hypocrisy found just five pages apart:
Worst yet, in this letter to the Senator Blumenthal, Bettman claims he is operating with the health and safety of the players in mind.
“First and foremost, we want to state in no uncertain terms that the health and safety of NHL players is a top priority for the NHL and its member Clubs, as well as the National Hockey League Players’ Association,” Bettman began his letter. “The NHL cares deeply about its players, and we are committed to their well-being.”
By steadfastly fighting against progress in research on the human brain and by discrediting the findings of doctors and medical experts, it’s a wonder that Bettman can make such a statement with a straight face.