Sidney Crosby's health is a public trust. A healthy Mr. Crosby belongs to the fans and aspiring players everywhere. The National Hockey League and the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey club failed to live up to their duty as guardians of that trust, and are now reaping what they sowed: Mr. Crosby will miss the all-star game this weekend (his 10th game out with a concussion), undermining the much publicized event in the United States.
The league has failed to understand the seriousness of head injuries. Consider that a hockey player knocked unconscious is allowed to return to the ice in the very same game or practice. No rule in the NHL's Concussion Evaluation and Management Protocol forbids it. (The National Football League put such a rule in place in 2009.) And players who have suffered a concussion may even return to play, in some circumstances, in the very same game.
That is astonishing in 2011. This is a league that has lost countless star players, including Pat LaFontaine and Eric Lindros, to the effects of head injuries. A year ago, the oft-battered brain of the late NHLer Reg Fleming was found in lab tests to have suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that leads to dementia. The NFL is tracking dementia and depression in former players. The NHL's protocol is out of date.
If Mr. Crosby cannot eventually return to form, or suffers the cumulative effects of more concussions, the loss to hockey will be incalculable. It is the once-in-a-generation players like Mr. Crosby (or Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky before him) who enlarge the game's possibilities.
The NHL needs to learn the lessons of Mr. Crosby's head injury. When he was felled on Jan. 1 by a massive blow from the blind side, he returned to play - at great risk.
The league's protocol should bar the return of the concussed or unconscious, and send a clearer message about the seriousness of brain injuries. A related lesson: use the protocol, and don't just ask an athlete if he is okay, as appears to have happened with Mr. Crosby in Pittsburgh. And the NHL should take disciplinary action against those whose blindside hits are said to be accidental. (Accidental high sticks aren't tolerated.) The NHL needs to live up to its public trust.