Friday, December 16, 2011

Boogaard's Brain

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.I Corinthians 9:24-27Derek Boogaard was known to hockey fans as one of the fiercest fighters ever to play in the NHL.

He died last May at the age of 28. He killed himself. We don’t know whether he did it on purpose or by mistake, but he died of a drug and alcohol overdose.

His brain was examined by researchers from Boston University. The results came in a conference call to the family in October. Derek Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as C.T.E., a disease related to Alzheimer’s. Positive diagnosis can only be made posthumously, but researchers say the symptoms include memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, and addiction.

More than 20 former professional football players have been posthumously diagnosed with C.T.E., as well as many boxers. What makes the Boogaard case different, and very troubling, is that he was still in his 20’s, in what should have been the prime of his career. The researchers told Derek’s family that they were shocked to see such advanced disease in someone so young.

The results set off a flurry of investigations, hand-wringing, and well-intentioned pronouncements from people in the hockey world. Almost everyone agrees that something must be done. What is surprising to me is the almost unanimous agreement that whatever is done must not change “the character of the game.” What they mean by that is that fighting is and will remain integral to NHL hockey.

Fighting is not permitted in youth or high school or college. It is not permitted in European hockey or in the Olympics. And everyone loves Olympic hockey. But it belongs in the NHL.

Which causes me to wonder if Derek Boogaard isn’t the only guy who took too many shots to the head.

Fighting is not the only cause of head injuries in hockey. It may not even be the major cause. Players are bigger and faster, and the collisions are more damaging.

And all of this is part of a larger pattern in sports.

More than ever, players talk about intimidation. It’s not about checking, it’s about “hitting.” And in football, no one tackles anymore; they “hit” the guy with the ball. If one player hits another with enough force, it is referred to as “blowing him up.” Even basketball coaches and analysts talk about one team intimidating another.

Football helmets, which were introduced to prevent injuries, and began life as leather padded caps, are now used as weapons. The highlights shown over and over are not of tackles, they are of flying bodies and huge collisions. It’s exciting and it sells.

Do you remember Ted Johnson? He played linebacker for the Patriots and he was once a Super Bowl champion. But repeated concussions turned him into a shell of his former self. He lost his career, his wife, and his whole life collapsed.

The NHL and the NFL are both concerned about concussions. And they should be. They are looking at rule changes, and they should look at rule changes.

But in a broader perspective, this is about our vision and our values as a culture. Why do we find the violence so appealing? How many Derek Boogaards or Ted Johnsons will it take before we decide that we have had enough?

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