The news that the late NHLer Reggie Fleming's brain showed signs of CTE (chronic toxic encephalopathy) a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by repetitive trauma to the brain, will send shock waves through the hockey community.
Fleming's diagnosis should also serve as a wakeup call to the media about how networks portray extreme physical contact and fighting. TV has long promoted spectacular hitting and knockout shots in all contact sports, including hockey.
As this week's highly public tiff between Dr. Charles Tator and Don Cherry demonstrates, some networks will still vigorously push back at the notion they condone or promote unsafe play. Still in denial about whether head shots are "clean" or not, hockey's body politic now finds one more of its avenues of escape from CTE closed off with the news that the veteran brawler of the '60s might presage a wave of retirees with dementia.
And while the Matthew Barnabys, P.J. Stocks and Nick Kypreos's of TV fame will not change their tune overnight about "honour" and "accountability," the Fleming news should strengthen the hand of voices such as post-concussion victim Keith Primeau, who have donated their brains to science and are recruiting other players to do so in the cause of research.
"You can't change minds in 10 minutes," says former WWE star Chris Nowinski, whose own concussion problems led him to be an advocate for research into athletic CTE. "I'm not a hockey expert ... But I do feel, as a fan, that the blindside shots we see, having star players getting knocked out and sliding along unconscious, we just can't have that image going out to the public [through TV]"
There are indications that many in broadcasting and reporting have begun picking up on the issue on hockey, football and other contact sports. "It's now top of mind within our broadcasts," says Mark Milliere, TSN's vice-president of production. "It's immediate, not after the game or the next day. You ask, 'Is the guy concussed? Will he get back in the game?' Expressions like 'ringing the bell' are now out of the lexicon."
TSN's Bob McKenzie, whose own son has battled post-concussion syndrome, applauds the awareness that medical evidence such as the Fleming diagnosis will bring.
"The public awareness is a positive," he says. "Having Congress call in the NFL has made it a hot-button issue. On the other hand, broadcasters have to be careful. We're not 'super' doctors judging outside our knowledge. But the issue of 'should a concussed player be back in the game or not' is now part of regular game analysis."
Milliere says you can't make generalizations over TV's responsibility for promoting head shots. "There's a distinction between big hits and gratuitous violence, going for the head," he says. "People celebrate big hits, that's part of the game, but you can't say they're advocates of violence... you have to be specific if you paint with too broad a bush."
What the networks don't carry will be serviced by new media on the internet, says Nowinski. "The new media has been instrumental to getting this issue in front of the public and the leagues," he says. "It's been great that people can come to a website, or got donors that way. They can have a great column on the issue live on in the site forever for everyone to access. The work we're doing is putting all these pieces together..., and having as many people have access to that information is the way to change minds."
The issue of Cherry's role in the concussion debate was obscured by the Hockey Night In Canada star's profane remarks against Tator ( published by The Globe and Mail, posted on YouTube and globesports.com). As both men made clear, the sensitivities between those who've promoted rock 'em/ sock 'em hockey and the medical community are raw.
Asked by a 680 News radio reporter about Tator's claim that he is a "negative influence" in the fight against concussions, Cherry lashed out, saying: "I don't give a [expletive]about him." Only hours earlier, HNIC executive producer Sherali Najak had defended his star with a statement: "Don Cherry's record of safety and respect in hockey speaks for itself. Everything from championing on-ice rules and equipment changes to leading the stop sign campaign, he has been the leader in teaching tough, smart hockey and promotes respect amongst players at every level."
Cherry also told the young reporter to "[expletive]off." Tuesday, Cherry's boss, CBC sports exec Scott Moore, tried to make a case during a CFRB radio interview that the 28-year veteran of TV and radio had been hounded into his few swear words by an overly aggressive reporter "ambushing" him. Moore declared that it was not a proper interview, a claim CFRB host Bill Carroll did not accept.
Cherry might have ended the incident with a simple apology and focused the debate instead on safety. Likewise, Moore blamed the 680 News reporter and The Globe and Mail for publishing the YouTube clip. CBC, said Moore, is supporting Cherry (who's the focus of a CBC movie now in production).
Is Cherry a media proponent of reckless physical play? He once coached under the slogan "Come to the fights and watch a [Colorado]Rockies game break out!" His videos have always promoted fighting and a type of physical play that wasn't accepted when Cherry himself was a player. He's blasted visor wearers. Contrarily, he advocates safer equipment, no-touch icing and no hitting from behind. He's been a frequent guest at the Dr. Tom Pashby Dinner, named for the man who worked tirelessly to eliminate broken necks and other severe neurological conditions in hockey.
As with everything, Cherry keeps one foot in and one foot out on hockey violence, trying to have it both ways. A helping of hitting to please his traditional fans but a measure of compassion to leaven the rough-hewn edges. It's a contradictory performance CBC Sports had indulged for three decades as the money rolled in.
Cherry is reminiscent of the late CBS figure Jimmy The Greek Snyder -- another rowdy, tempestuous figure who was a huge star on CBS' NFL pregame show for a decade. (See the fine ESPN documentary The Legend Of Jimmy The Greek shown recently on TSN). The irascible and cantankerous Snyder was a volatile presence on screen and off at CBS till he, too, fell afoul of a live microphone away from the set. In both cases, the picture that emerged of both Cherry and Snyder set was not pretty.
While CBC has seemingly chosen to deny or obscure the portrait of Cherry on the tape, CBS didn't blame the interviewer for provoking Snyder. They put the blame where it belonged, admitting that Snyder was a loose cannon whose behaviour could not be condoned. By contrast, having one of its executives shift responsibility from its highest-profile personality to a lowly reporter -- and blaming the new universe brought on by YouTube -- CBC's position on all matters Cherry is now clear. Shoot the messenger.
Reporter Suspended: The Cherry furore has distracted attention from the bosses of reporter Colin D'Mello at 680 News for not posting the controversial audio themselves. Rather than complimenting D'Mello on his persistence in the face of Cherry's intimidation, the station has reportedly suspended him for a week for posting Cherry's profane outburst on YouTube and Twitter. "We are dealing with this as an internal matter and have no further comment," says news director Scott Metcalfe, who would not confirm the suspension. Too bad. We'd like to discuss the conflict between a news story on 680 News hurting a marquee attraction at Rogers' sister station Fan 590. The sepulchral silence does little to suggest that Cherry wasn't being protected by Rogers.
Head injuries in hockey
- The proof: NHLer's condition linked to concussions at time of death
- The man: Reggie Fleming's story
- Video: Reggie Fleming interview
- Usual Suspects: Fleming's diagnosis should serve as wakeup call
- Brain damage: Building a better helmet
- Staring early: Minor hockey gets serious about safety
- Graphic: Anatomy of a concussion