NFL Dodges Tackle in Concussion Crisis: Is the NHL Next?

On Thursday, August 29th, a federal judge announced a settlement agreement between the NFL and a group consisting of more than 4,500 former NFL players.  The tentative $765 million settlement was reached with the NFL agreeing to compensate victims, pay for medical exams and underwrite research related to long-term effects of trauma-induced head injuries.

Over the next 20 years, the settlement will cost each of the NFL’s 32 franchises roughly $24 million, or $1.2 million a year – which will most likely come via salary cap reductions.  The announced settlement ultimately allows the NFL to side-step a drawn-out, public thrashing while likely financing their pittance of a punishment out of the coffers of current and future NFL players.  Thursday’s announcement is like catching an employee stealing inventory and then having them pay you back with cash lifted from the till.

The NFL is in the open field for now, pun intended, but the head injury issue is not about to go away.  If anything, with the advancement of diagnostic measures and information linking head injuries to debilitating diseases such as early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and manic depression, we are just reaching the foothills of the behemoth that is the mounting concussion issue.

When talking about concussions and contact sports, two reign supreme in the heated debate: football and hockey.  Football has just had its first foray into court on the issue.  The pressing question now is not if, but when will hockey find itself on the carpet?  As history in the recently concluded NFL case shows us, all the signs are in place for a similar situation to unfold in hockey.

When this does happen – considering the turbulent labour issues and financial concerns surrounding the NHL – will the league be able to handle it?  The NFL is poised and equipped to put up a good fight.  Projected league revenues this season are roughly $10 billion, and the NFL finalized a series of media-rights deals last year that guarantee more than $40 billion through 2022.  The NHL, on the other hand, may not be equipped to handle another parade through the mud.  With failing markets and feeble structural continuity, another public black mark is not ideal for a league that has experienced two major labour disputes in the last decade.

A storm is most certainly on the horizon in hockey.  On the wake of the deaths of Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard and Wade Belak, coupled with the onslaught of head injuries to key stars like Sidney Crosby, the distant rumble has been heard for quite some time now, but we have yet to feel the wrath of the storm.

Concussions and head injuries have been made a topic of prime focus in hockey and steps are being taken to try and catch up, medically speaking.  The concern is certainly genuine but it’s going to be decades of past neglect and ignorance that will inevitably take centre stage.

Victims of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a degenerative brain disease stemming from repeated head trauma including concussions and sub-concussions – don’t tend to experience the effects of the disease until several years after sustainment of initial injury.  As documented in the book, “Head Games” by former Harvard University linebacker and WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski, most athletes who suffer from CTE will have their world begin to cave in on them in their late 40s or early 50s.

That being said, it isn’t the Sidney Crosby’s or the Marc Staal’s that will be picking up the torch.  It will be the former players from the 1970s, 80s and 90s – a period where players were considered branded cattle and were told to “Tough it out” and “Shake it off” – that will be leading the charge.  This is the generation of hockey players who suffered from a lack of medical knowledge and dismissal of the severity of cumulative head trauma.  This is the generation who is dealing with CTE in its debilitating ferocity on a daily basis.

Just like over 4,500 former NFL players, this will be the demographic that will ultimately band together to put a collective scarred and mangled face to the issue of head injuries and concussions in the world of professional hockey.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

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