NHL Commissioner Bettman Denies the Obvious

Hockey is, essentially, thought of as America’s winter sport.  This year, the National Hockey League started its play for the 2016-2017 season, the 100th season of the NHL (99th season of play), on October 12, 2016 with four games in which the Ottawa Senators, the Edmonton Oilers, the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks won.  Since the teams have already started their season, it is relevant now to look at what the government is doing to support safe play for professional and amateur ice hockey players.

This year, on October 6, four members of the Legislative Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to Commissioner Gary Bettman about the issue of CTE, brain injury, and the NHL.  Specifically, Hon. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ). Hon. Gene Green (D-TX), Hon. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Hon. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), wrote to Bettman, “to request information on the National Hockey League’s (NHL) policies and procedures for the prevention and treatment of concussions and related head injuries…. [as] there is significant scientific evidence to support a link between the types of concussive and subconcussive hits inherent to the game of hockey and brain injury.”  (It seems evident to me that having your head hit repeatedly thoughout the season will result in head trauma.)  The Committee members also noted that participation in contact sports as a youth may increase the likelihood of developing CTE.

In response, on October 24, Bettman wrote a letter to the Committee that stated the National Hockey League/National Hockey League Players’ Association is very concerned about the health of its players.  Prior to this season, for example, the NHL updated its concussion protocol so that it is now mandatory to remove an athlete from play if the coach sees that the player has been physically or neurologically hurt and to then get the player evaluated by a certified athletic trainer.  However, the Committee says that Bettman’s letter of response sounds, “a little bit like the tobacco industry, when it comes to linking concussions with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).”

Ironically though, just as there are some Congress members who are smokers, annually there is a Congressional Hockey Challenge.  Begun in 2009, “The Congressional Hockey Challenge is a 501(c)(3) organization committed to ensuring that the incredible and dynamic sport of ice hockey is accessible to everyone who wants to play.”  On the Congressional games website, one can note that the game is played for lawmakers’ enjoyment, yes, but also to benefit charity.  This year, the game was played on March 2nd and had five Congressmen on the ice.  Even Bettman, who criticizes Congress, as the above paragraph notes, attended the event in support of the team and the cause.

Personally, just as I believe should be true for all other sports, I do not believe it should be the role of Congress to determine the rules of professional sports, especially one that they enjoy themselves.  Education is the key.  Players need to be informed, by the team and by former players who have suffered the horrible lasting effects of brain injury, of the possible consequences of violent defense in the game and post-game fights.  More so, the National Hockey League needs to fully enforce its concussion/head injury rules.

“Concussion. Oh, oh!” says Trump

Beyond commenting on the “softening” of the NFL, Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for President has essentially ignored those with brain injury during his campaign.  Last week in Florida, though, Donald Trump spoke of brain injury at a rally in Florida when, “a woman who had fainted [during a Trump rally]… returned to the crowd.”  Commenting on her return, Trump said, “That woman was out cold, and now she’s coming back.”  While there is nothing wrong with that statement, he then returned to a topic he spoke of earlier in his campaign: namely, he spoke of the “softening” of the NFL, with its new post-concussion regulations.

Through continual blows to the head, NFL players are prone to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).  Harry Carson, a former Hall of Fame linebacker for the New York Giants who developed CTE, said in response to Trump’s views, “Once the brain is injured, you [can] never recover… So to make light of it, there’s a certain amount of ignorance that’s there.”  Carson also noted that many children look up to and try to imitate the actions of NFL players, which may lead to concussions and other brain injuries in them.

Political commentators always note when a candidate changes his or her views on a topic.  Trump, however, has stayed consistently pro-neurological disorder on this subject.  This opinion, though, expresses a disregard for Americans, merely for his entertainment.

Rio Olympics End: A Look Back at (Para)lympians

The 2016 Olympic competitions in Rio ended this weekend.  Specifically, the Paralympics which began on September 7th, concluded on Sunday, September 18th.  Now that the games are over, I believe it is important to acknowledge the individuals who demonstrated their remarkable athletic skills in both the Olympics and the Paralympics.

The first athlete to have the drive, and with particular training, the ability, to compete in the general Olympics, in spite of his disability, was George Eyser in 1904.  Eyser, an American gymnastic who had a wooden leg, finished the games with three gold, two silver, and one bronze medal.  Eyser and other disabled athletes at the time did not compete in the Paralympics, as the Paralympics was not an athletic event until 1948 and took much longer to become the international sporting event it is now.  However, once the Paralympics came to be, according to various sources, at least fifteen athletes have participated in both the Paralympics and the Olympics.  In 2008, two Paraympians participated in the general Olympics, held in Beijing.  One, an amputee following a car accident at the age of 17, South African swimmer Natalie du Tolt, became the first amputee to qualify for the Olympic Games since 1936, while the other, Natalia Partyka, who was born without a right forearm, competed in table tennis.  (Partyka also participates in the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics.)

In 2012, South African Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who had earned multiple gold medals in disability-specific sporting events, qualified and placed 16th in the 400 meter run in Track & Field at the general Olympics, becoming the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics.  (Pistorius and his Olympic accomplishment would be laudable if, in 2014, Pistorius hadn’t been convicted of murdering his girlfriend, South African model Reeya Steenkamp).

The International Paralympics Committee has a list of “qualifying disabilities” for the Paralympics.  Although disabilities that result from a brain injury may be thought more suitable for the Special Olympics, three of these qualifying disabilities specifically apply to brain injury – hypertonia, ataxia, and athetosis.  Hypertonia is the, “abnormal increase in muscle tension and a reduced ability of a muscle to stretch, due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.”  Ataxia is the “lack of co-ordination of muscle movements due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.”  Athetosis is “generally characterized by unbalanced, involuntary movements and a difficulty in maintaining a symmetrical posture, due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.”  Additionally, other paralympians may also have had a brain injury as a result of an injury that affects their neurological functioning, such as a car accident, though it is inappropriate to make this assumption.

It is a positive sign that the International Paralympics Committee recognizes that disabilities, particularly neurological conditions, don’t necessarily break one’s drive for success in whatever their passion may be and prevent them from competing in athletic events.  Still, there is government ignorance that must be dealt with; for example, the Russian Secretary General of the Russian Paralympics Committee, Andrei Strokin, said that an individual competes in the Paraympics, “because often for a disabled person it is the only chance of self-realization and achieving something in life”.  I think that the above list of athletes proves him wrong.

Money or Safety: Who Wins?

Mixed Martial Arts combines the skills needed in wresting, kickboxing and jiu-jitsu into one violent sport.  In this century, MMA has gained popularity and consequently been legalized in most of America.  This past week, the New York legislature, Governor Cuomo and the State Athletic Commission entered the cage.

While MMA matches have been going on in New York for some years, legalization means that there will be regulations.  Specifically, these regulations include classifying 31 Acts that constitute a foul in the arena and would result in “disqualification from a mixed martial arts contest or exhibition… as determined by the referee.”  Five of these fouls specifically involve violence to the brain: Butting with the head, striking to… the back of the head, kicking the head of a grounded opponent, kneeing the head of a grounded opponent, and spiking an opponent to the floor surface on his head or neck.  Other rules are not specifically directed to the head, but could easily result in head trauma, such as “attacking an opponent on or during a break”.  Additionally, “New York [is] to Require $1 Million Brain-Injury Coverage for Mixed Martial Artist,” to be provided by the promoters.

However, the safety of the athletes was not directly the reason of the legalization… it was the money.  It is estimated that legalizing MMA will bring $140 million to New York in economic growth.

In covering this story, Forbes magazine notes that, “insurance doesn’t provide for fighter safety.  It provides compensation after fighter safety has failed.”  (On the other hand, the NYS Athletic Commission says it, “has taken another step toward ensuring the health, safety and integrity of its athletes and event.”)  Some people still want the sport banned.  Currently, the State is seeking comments from the public on this issue.  The proposed legislation can be found on this link and comments can be submitted for review until August 27, 2016.

Conventions Are Staged, Too

 

DaPresident Dana White delivers a speech on the second day of the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18.na White, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is not an athlete, but he works in athletics.  He is not involved in politics, but yesterday he spoke at the Republican National Convention.  And Dana White doesn’t have a brain injury, but he makes sure other people do… And it’s with the help of Donald Trump that he can do this all.

In a 4 minute speech, White used the knowledge he acquired from acting as a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) promoter, to promote Trump for President.  He describes Trump as his friend, noting that, “Just for the record [he] has nothing to do with my business.”  (To counter that statement, know that the first 2 UFC fights were fought at the Trump Taj Majal, and Trump continues to host UFC events at his Atlantic City casino.)  He then goes into Trump’s three characteristics that will make him a great President.*

When UFC fighting first came out, in 1993, it was considered a blood-sport.  The description of the sport is not simply rhetoric, as, after time in the ring, fighters drip with blood.  Last year, Wanderlei Silva, a former fighter, claimed that the UFC fixes its games.  (World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. admits to fixing their games.)  However, if we accept the games as being fixed, that doesn’t make them any safer.  For example, the comparatively tamer World Wrestling Entertainment is being sued by more than 50 former fighters for the brain trauma they suffered in the sport.  Since the sport is essentially “fake”, being scripted and choreographed, the WWE is “directly responsible for wrestlers’ injuries”, according to the lawsuit.

According to a study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, about one-third of professional MMA matches end in knockout, indicating a higher incidence of brain trauma than boxing or other martial arts.  “The researchers [of this study] at the University of Toronto proposed introducing rules like in boxing where a fighter gets a 10-second count and evaluated after a knockdown. They also proposed more training to help referees to identify fighters who are defenseless or have lost consciousness so they can stop fights more quickly.”  This year, the UFC extended its partnership with the Cleveland Clinic in the “Professional Fighters Brain Health Study”.

Yes, the UFC is trying to better its sport, to prevent head injury thereby allowing athletes to stay in the sport longer.  Technically, Trump is supporting this investigation.  However, do you think that the man who likes to see head collisions in football wants to make the UFC safer?  Will the sport continue to be as popular if its rings are not filled with blood after a fight, thereby decreasing his game sales?  Assuming the UFC is here to stay, Trump needs to think about his point of view.  It’s one thing to except that a sport is going to happen, it’s a whole other thing to give it a place to happen.

(Currently, in combat sports, there is a call from some for fighters to toss away their gloves and fight bare-handed.  That call sounds awful and horribly unsafe, and would increase hand injuries.  For the head, bare-handed fighting is actually safer (safer, not safe).)

*First, White says that Trump has excellent business instincts, presumably talking about his instincts with the UFC – even though, as White said, “[Trump] has nothing to do with it.”  Second, Trump is a hard worker.  Third, Trump is a loyal, supportive friend.  Being a good friend is a great feature, but I’m not sure how it applies to the presidency, though there was talk about Trump buddying up with Putin.

America’s Pastime Hopes to Make Concussions a Problem of the Past

He ran for the ball, knocking head-first into a concrete wall in a game versus the Washington Senators at Washington’s Griffith Stadium.  He then lay on the ground, unconscious, for five minutes.  Eventually, he arose, shook off the trauma and returned to play.

Such a story as the one above seems unfathomable in current athletics.  Now, if a player is hit on the head and falls unconscious, he would never be permitted to return to play immediately and, most likely, would be taken to the hospital for neurological testing.  However, this is what happened to America’s famed baseball player for the New York Yankees, Babe Ruth, in 1924.

Compared to many other sports, baseball does not have a high concussion rate.  Between ten to twenty players are put on the disabled list yearly because of concussions.  However, even one concussion is one too many.  Most prone to concussions are outfielders and catchers.

Recently, this was brought to my attention because of the story, Ex-Met Josh Satin explains why retiring is ‘the right thing’ after suffering head injuries.  Specifically, while playing for the Louisville Bats, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, Satin collided with his team’s third baseman, as both were going for a pop fly.  After being unconscious for five long seconds, Satin says he had a “weird feeling” and later was “never the same”.  He further stated that his depth perception, once his best skill, never fully recovered.  “The ball was always in a different spot than I thought.”  (Officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Satin sat out most of last season.)

Similarly, in December 2012, Toronto Blue Jays’ utility player Ryan Freel, the first pro-baseball player diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) who had to retire from playing the sport because of his injuries, committed suicide.  In 2013, Freel’s family donated some of his brain tissue to Boston University for study.  Though Freel’s behavior after his accident pointed towards CTE, he was not officially diagnosed until this postmortem study.

Dr. Robert Stern, co-founder of the Center of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, said, “I cringe [whenever] I see two guys going after the same ball.”  The MLB has said, “[it] will remain proactive on concussion and head injuries.”  Home plate collisions are no longer allowed and, in 2013, the MLB said it was instituting educational programs and rule changes to protect from concussions.  The prior year, the MLB mandated that any player who suffers a concussion must be put on the “disabled list” for at least 7 days.

This year, Major League Baseball established a lobbying office in the District of Columbia.  Lobbying is not new for the MLB, as they have always spent time and money lobbying, most notably in the 1998 – 1999 seasons when they spent $1.6 million on it.  (In comparison, last year the MLB spent about $320,000 lobbying.)  The office is run by Josh Alkin, a lawyer who, before the appointment as Vice President of Government Relations in this office, had been handling issues relating to the MLB for 15 years at the firm BakerHostetler.  In 2013, the MLB also stated that it aims, “to remain proactive on concussions and head injuries.”

I don’t think there is a way to entirely eliminate concussions from baseball but the MLB has instituted mandatory educational programs and certain changes to the rules to minimize these injuries. It is a good sign that the MLB, as of this year, has a lobbying office in the country’s capital to address a wide range of key government-facing issues including player safety.  With these steps, the MLB hopes to eliminate some concussions, but still keep the excitement of watching a game of America’s pastime.

“Hearing” Concussions

Though they are quite different on the surface, soldiers and college athletes both function in roles that can result in physical injury.  Unfortunately, this commonality means that both soldiers and college athletes have a higher likelihood of getting a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), also known as a concussion.  Because of this, the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency (USAMMA) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) joined forces in a search to find a better way of detecting mTBI, which may not be immediately recognizable.  The project, known as the “Grand Alliance”, is being conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s government-funded Lincoln Laboratory (MIT LL), with the goal of creating “a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-cleared, real-time mild TBI screening app and hardware device which can be used throughout the echelons of care from point of injury to rehabilitation,” said Brian Dacanay, USAMMA product manager.  Essentially, they are in the process of creating “a computer algorithm to identify vocal biomarkers” to be used on a portable smartphone-size device that could help identify when someone needs medical help for a concussion.  MIT LL hopes to have the device ready for FDA approval by 2018.

Former Soccer Star Races Towards Congressional TBI Goal

There is a reason soccer is called football in other nations.  Much like American football, soccer requires getting the ball into a goal and preventing the other team from doing the same.  Such action requires exceptional offense and defense, which often includes certain violent maneuvers that are allowed under sports rules.

Briana Scurry, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in women’s soccer and a World Cup winner, knows this all too well.  In 2010, as the goalkeeper of the Washington Freedom, she “took the knee of a Philadelphia Independence forward to her temple at full velocity during a Women’s Professional match.”  The injury changed her life and ended her soccer career.  However, it also created a new career plan for her – advocate for brain health, particularly women’s brain health.

In 2015, U.S. Soccer banned heading in soccer for children under 10 and limited heading for children 11 to 13.  (Ages when children’s brains are still developing.) This was much needed because, as the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council has confirmed, “young athletes in particular face a ‘culture of resistance’ when it comes to reporting and treating concussions”.  (Scurry also supports mandating that players wear headgear when they play.)  This action was partially brought to their attention by Scurry because, rightly so, “She sees herself as an advocate for women’s health, especially in relation to concussions and traumatic brain injury.

This past week, Scurry, with Joanne Finegan, Alison Cernich, Yelena Goldin, Mike Colson and Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, all whom are traumatic brain injury advocates, and joined by Rep. Bill Pascrell (NJ), the head of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, spoke at the “Women and Traumatic Brain Injury: A Frontier Yet To Be Explored” conference at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington D.C.  (Scurry also testified before Congress on the same issue in 2014.)  At this conference, Scurry told her story, including her accident, recovery and her ongoing struggles.  “Scurry hopes that her testimony… will help members of Congress understand the dangers and resulting issues of brain injuries… [and] take charge in making moves to change the way things… are conducted.”  This includes changing the knowledge of doctors who once told her things like, “You can’t possibly have post-concussive syndrome anymore because it’s been too long.”  Obviously these doctors were wrong, because they were uneducated about brain injuries.

Hopefully, her testimony will help educate doctors and the public about what a concussion can do to your brain.

Statistical note:

According to the NCAA, in soccer, females are at a 2.1 times greater risk of getting a concussion than males and later have more concussion symptoms, including, but not limited to, poor concentration and increased fatigue.  (More information and statistics can be found in the online NCAA article Do Female Athletes Concuss Differently than Males?)

Ali’s Fight Continues On

This past week, Muhammad Ali lost his long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease*, but the memory of Ali is still very much in the minds of our politicians.  On May 26, Rep. Mullin (R-OK), a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, introduced H.R. 5365, the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act.  The proposed amendment expands the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000, so that it applies to all combat sports.  This past Tuesday, “Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), introduced a measure to recognize the “extraordinary life, accomplishments, and countless contributions” of Ali.

In his lifetime, Ali, a Muslim who changed his name from Cassius Clay when he converted to the Islam religion, was both an athlete and a political activist.  In addition to his well-known objections to war, he was a fierce advocate for civil rights.  (In remembrance of Ali, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky plans to introduce the “Muhammad Ali Voluntary Service Act,” to replace the Selective Service, which Sen. Paul states, “… has a racial justice disparity.”)  In the years after his diagnosis, he became a fierce advocate and active fundraiser for Parkinson’s research, particularly for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix’s Barrow Neurological Institute .

Ali, who in 2005 received the Medal of Freedom from then President George W. Bush, would have liked the proposed legislations.  Unfortunately, we no longer have him here to advocate for them.

*For the last 32 years of his life, Ali had the neurological disease, Parkinson’s.  According to a Harvard Medical School neurologically professor, who met with Ali, “People who lose consciousness through head trauma are at 50% higher risk of Parkinson’s.”  Severe, ongoing head trauma, which is a consequence of heavyweight professional boxing, can cause the development of ‘Parkinson’s proteins’ or further the development of existing, inactive ‘Parkinson’s proteins’.

(June 10, 2016, Ali was laid to rest, at a funeral in his hometown of Louisville, KY.)

Football: The Government Gets Into The Game

This past year, special attention has been given to the link between football and brain injury, particularly in the NFL.  For good reason, this past season, the incidences of concussion in the NFL rose by 58% – from 182 to 271.

The National Institute of Health, in association with Boston University, studied the brains of 91 deceased NFL players, finding that 96% of them had some form of brain injury – a stunning number, but not surprising from a sport that is rife with head-to-head defensive collisions.

Naturally, “The NFL rejects the allegations,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.  In fact, the NFL initially offered to donate $30 million to fund this study – perhaps to surreptitiously sway the findings.  However, when they found that Robert Stern, Boston University researcher and an expert on the link between football and TBI, was leading the study, the NFL dropped its promised donation.

What I do not understand is how the NFL can deny the magnitude and relevance of these statistics, especially in a study of now deceased players.  They also say that Mr. Stern was biased.  Personally, I do not understand how the NFL can claim someone can be biased on a study that relies on statistics.  Furthermore, Mr. Stern may have personal feelings about the link between brain trauma and football, but I do not believe, as an expert in the field, he would sacrifice accuracy for point of view.

Lastly, I do not think that there is a person in this country who, if asked, does not have an opinion on football and its potentially negative effects.