Don't worry. I can fix everything.

Ralph Nader is the last person I expected to hear from in the NHL fighting debate. Politics and consumer protection are more in Nader’s wheelhouse, but the activist apparently also has an interest in sports. He started a project called the League of Fans back in 2001 and a post on their website details his activism in the world of sports dating back to 1977.

The project’s stated goal is to “encourage social & civic responsibility in sports industry & culture,” including the realm of health and safety. One of their targets is concussions in sports, focussing mainly on football. They even have an official “Sports Manifesto” with an entire 13-page section on concussions. Late on Tuesday, Nader took aim at fighting in hockey in an open letter written to Gary Bettman.

Concussions are definitely a serious issue in hockey and it’s up for debate whether the NHL is doing enough about them. The number of NHL players missing time with concussions is certainly alarming (though not necessarily a bad thing) and it’s understandable that the League of Fans would want to address the issue.

Focussing on fighting, however, is the wrong place to start. The issue is that there simply isn’t enough evidence linking fighting to concussions to make the kind of grandiose statements that Nader makes. He’s not necessarily wrong to link fighting with concussions, but he’s not right yet.

He makes a number of troubling statements that show a lack of familiarity with hockey and several major logical flaws in his argument. I want to take a quick look at these statements and unpack them.

You are right on one point: science has yet to provide us with all the answers when it comes to head trauma and concussions.  But we do know that concussions are a big problem and we all intuitively know that a fist swung against a skull at a high rate of speed is not good for the brain inside that skull.

The problems start here when he relies on intuition rather than science. Is getting punched in the face good for the brain? Probably not, no. But a study released just last October indicated that serious injuries, including concussions, are incredibly rare in hockey fights, mainly because of the difficulties inherent in fighting on ice.

The fact is that as much as intuition might suggest that fighting would be a major cause of concussions in hockey, the vast majority of them occur in other situations. Before calling for fighting to be removed from hockey, there needs to be something more definitive than intuition linking it to concussions; otherwise, starting with things that we know cause concussions should be the priority.

Repeated head trauma has shortened the careers of Pat LaFontaine, Eric Lindros, and Keith Primeau.  Currently, concussions are threatening the careers of Pittsburgh Penguins’ superstar Sidney Crosby and the Philadelphia Flyers’ Chris Pronger.

Case in point: fighting has nothing to do with the injuries suffered by these five players. Using them as evidence for an argument to remove fighting from hockey is completely disingenuous. Why not bring up Marc Savard or Paul Kariya as well?

The NHL has taken steps to remove the types of hits that have caused concussions for these players – again, whether they’ve done enough remains to be seen – but there will always be concussions in a sport like hockey. Claude Giroux suffered a concussion when his own teammate accidentally kneed him in the head. The NHL claims that accidental or inadvertent incidents of this nature are the cause of the majority of concussions this season.

Three enforcers, Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, whose primary job was to protect teammates by throwing fists at the heads of opponents, have died in the past year.  It’s certainly possible the brain trauma they received on the ice from their fellow combatants played a significant role in their deaths.

For me, this is where Nader’s letter goes from being simply off-base to offensive. It’s clear to me, at least, that Nader simply didn’t have the evidence to support his argument to remove fighting from hockey, and decided to use the tragic deaths of Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak instead. Yes, concussions can lead to depression

Of those three, the one I’m most familiar with is Rick Rypien. He reportedly suffered from clinical depression for years, completely unconnected from fighting in hockey and while he dealt with major injury problems during his career, he had no known history of concussions. Neither did Wade Belak, according to NHL reports as well as his own mother. I find it very offensive to use their tragic deaths in this way.

The League of Fans website has nothing to say about boxing or mixed martial arts, two sports where fighting is the only object and actually causing a concussion (a knock out) is a victory condition. I find that troubling. Targeting fighting in hockey when fighting is not a major cause of concussions and the NHL is taking significant steps to curtail concussions in other parts of the game just shows to me that Ralph Nader doesn’t actually know anything about hockey.

Imagine my surprise.

Comments (9)

  1. He doesn’t know anything about cars, either – never stopped him from spouting off about them too.

  2. Yeah, this is pretty bad. He takes issue with fighting as a cause of concussions, then lists 8 guys, only one of which could be argued to have had serious problems from fighting-related concussions and the one in question also had a serious prescription drug problem (which may or may not be related; more than one fighter has had a problem with painkillers and alcohol, but so have a number of players that hardly, if ever, dropped the gloves).

  3. It’s obviously not healthy to get socked in the face by large, unruly gentlemen, but the human skull is actually very durable. In an fistfight, the body is a much more enticing target – the ribs give a lot more, and the abdomen is nice and squishy. Better, you won’t accidentally break your hand or wrist trying for a shot on the nose that winds up catching the other guy’s forehead. The things that cause brain injury are usually the things that give much less than a skull – the ice, the boards, and people’s knees or elbows or shoulders (encased in heavy plastic).

    Another thing is that concussions often result on plays where the other guy isn’t expecting the shot because their back is turned, or they’ve given up the puck. In a fight you’re generally protecting yourself, making your head a difficult target, and grabbing the other guy’s jersey so he can’t get a clean shot.

  4. I get that it’s practically its own sport in North America to pick on Ralph Nader. I’m not sure why, but maybe I’ll leave a defence of Unsafe at Any Speed to another blog (though I really can’t imagine why anyone would be upset that he advocated successfully for safer automobiles).

    Honestly, I started a more detailed and logical retort to this article, but I just got angry. Your argument amounts to a mixture of enjoying picking on Ralph Nader and suggesting that he could have done a more thorough job of explaining what is a pretty obvious connection to most people. Getting hit in the head causes brain trauma. We saw this in the study at Cornell on their wide receivers who were suffering concussions from cumulative, sub-concussive traumas by running their routes sharply day in and day out. We KNOW conclusively (though inductively) that punches to the head = hits to the head = some sort of trauma to the brain, whether slight or severe. We also know that several NHL fighters (Boogaard and Probert among them) had early on-set dementia as a result of CTE, which in turn was a result of repeated head traumas.

    Nader’s argument is that the NHL can’t claim to be doing everything in its power to prevent concussions and chronic conditions that stem from repeated concussions so long as it both: 1) allows fighting; 2) refuses to acknowledge that there is an intuitive and inductive REASON to study the phenomenon more scientifically. None of that is contentious. You can make that argument that they are highly paid and know the risks, but you open up questions about junior players, rec players etc. and the ‘nature’ of the game. You cannot argue that Nader’s argument is rhetorical and thus we can dismiss it. Your argument is no more rigorous than his, citing anecdotes and hearsay about players with medical histories you know no better than he does.

    Is it possible that fighting is causing concussions? If the answer is yes, than the NHL is not doing all it can to prevent them. End of story.

  5. Nicely said, Kevin.

  6. “He reportedly suffered from clinical depression for years, completely unconnected from fighting in hockey and while he dealt with major injury problems during his career, he had no known history of concussions.”

    So a player who was an enforcer and trained as a boxer as a kid didn’t have any history of concussions? None of the punches to his head could have slightly and cumulatively injured his brain that could have caused depression while he was out with other injuries, concerned about his playing future?

    Yeah nothing adds up there at all.

    • Rypien had severe mental health issues before he ever took his first fight in juniors.

      And even if he had boxed before that (news to me) and that had caused his mental health issues, well, its got nothing to do with fighting in hockey because the second thing is so much less damaging vs boxing.

      Boogarde’s brain damage isn’t a good thing, but he wasn’t exactly damaged to anywhere near the extent of an Edwin Valero.

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