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.