Dying to win? The hidden cost of head injuries in sport
No shortage of decent sports stories around recently. From false starts and gold medals at the World Athletic Championships to new starts and gold-plated bathrooms for team-hopping Premier Leaguers – no doubt the men and women who will fill the newspapers’ sports pages have been begging for extra space.
Here is one story that was overlooked in all the excitement however – a damning verdict on one mainstream sport by members of the medical profession and a “call to arms” for all those involved in public health to try and get it banned.
A couple of days ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society (which represent doctors who practice children’s medicine) released a policy statement on boxing. It instructs physicians to, “vigorously oppose boxing in youth” and says, “amateur boxers are at risk of structural brain injuries, cognitive abnormalities, and neurological deficits from the sport.”
While data on the number and severity of injuries in boxing is limited (because national boxing associations do not collect the information), doctors have benefited from mounting evidence in other contact sports where participants endure repeated blows to the head – like the professional sports leagues in North America. Physicians say children and adolescents’ brains are particularly vulnerable to head injuries and concussions. They say recovery times take far longer than adults and the accumulative effect of repeated blows can produce brain damage and even fatalities.
This issue has garnered much publicity in recent weeks in North America. Three (relatively) young men who served as designated ‘fighters’ on their ‘National Hockey League’ sides have been found dead in the last few months.
Most professional ice hockey teams in Canada and the US reserve one position for the so-called “enforcer”. This “player” is not required to score goals or defend the net – but to dish out on-ice justice against perceived “cheap shots” by the other side. Enforcers drop their gloves and wade in with their fists – a near nightly occurrence – to the boisterous approval of their teammates and the fans. Until now, little thought has been given to the mental and physical toll that comes with the job.
I thought the name of the third “enforcer” to die – a former Toronto Maple Leaf forward called Wade Belak – sounded familiar. I had a quick look on the internet and realised that I had interviewed him in 2004 when he played a season with the ‘Coventry Blaze’ of the British Elite Ice Hockey League. NHL players were on strike at the time and a small number went over to the UK to keep fit and stay sharp.
He was a big man with an imposing frame – 6ft 5ins, 16 stone – but I found him a shy and introverted character. I remember him saying that he liked being in Coventry because the Blaze wanted him to play hockey – they didn’t want him to fight. I distinctly recall feeling sorry for him – despite the fact that he earned a multimillion-dollar salary.
Belak’s body was found last week in a Toronto condominium – the police said his death was not suspicious. He probably fought hundreds of times – but I don’t think he wanted to. The only way to hold his place on the team was to drop his gloves and batter and be battered.
Did Wade Belak’s job as “enforcer” – the doling out and receiving of on-ice beatings – play a role in his death? Did he suffer from memory loss, behaviour and impulse control – or problems with his speech, balance and coordination? I don’t know the answer to these questions – but the medical profession says there is a case to answer – and they are saying it ever-more vigorously. More than 20 former National Football League (American football) players have been posthumously found to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephaolopathy (CTE) – a degenerative disease caused by blunt trauma to the head.
Last week, National Hockey League administrators they would see if “concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare”. But I don’t expect them to do much. For many hockey fans in North America, fighting is simply part of the game.
However, parents are taking notice and self-selecting the safer sports for the children. In more troubling news for Canadian hockey fans, far more children now play soccer than the country’s national sport. I am not surprised.