If the result has been collisions that are too dangerous, you “tweak” the rules, “tweak” the equipment, “tweak” the strategies of play, often in the face of great resistance – and the leagues have done this. But still the careers and lives of their players are being compromised, and now everybody can see it.
As a hockey or football commissioner today, you can't not know that many of your players this year, next year and every year will suffer head injuries. Some will have their careers ended; some, such as Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros, before age gets them, will begin their downward slide from superstar to journeyman; and some retired players will die long before their time, their final years, for themselves and their families, in the living death of dementia. This isn't being alarmist. This is alarming.
Mr. Bettman and Mr. Goodell can see this. So can the heads of the hockey and football players associations. So, increasingly, can the players, their wives and their families, and their lawyers. The commissioners and their leagues – mostly – are now beyond simple denial, defensiveness and counterattack. The challenge is no longer awareness of the problem. It's awareness of the solution. If you are Gary Bettman or Roger Goodell, what do you do?
I come back to the Crosby press conference. I'm not sure how it could have been done better. The message was that we are in uncharted territory. We know some things, there is much more we don't know and we're going to do what we know and respect what we don't until we know better. This is serious, and we are serious. And we want you – all those who are watching – to experience what we have experienced and learn what we have learned because, as people who love sports, we're in this together. It is this same tone, attitude and approach on head injuries that Mr. Bettman and Mr. Goodell need to take.
For Mr. Bettman, it's time to say: This is a great game, but it has a big problem, one that will get only worse if we don't do what needs to be done now. Our players will not get smaller, they will not skate slower, the force of their collisions will not diminish. The equipment they wear will not improve fast enough to mitigate the greater risks they will face. “Tweaking” is not the answer.
Immediately, Mr. Bettman can say that we need to treat any hit to the head as what it is: an attempt to injure. A hit to the shoulder, torso or hip – depending – is understood as good positioning and good defence; not so a hit to the head. The head has always been thought of differently, requiring special protection with its own peculiar penalties. Highsticking is not for a blow to the shoulder or elbowing for a blow to the chest. In the future, if a play results in an incidental and minor hit to the head, or one that is the fault of the player being hit, no penalty need be called.
But now, the presumption needs to be that every hit to the head is an attempt to injure, with the onus on the player doing the hitting, through his actions and in the eyes of the referee, to defeat that presumption. As Mr. Crosby said in his press conference, if the league requires players to be responsible for their sticks, why not their bodies? Further, if an opponent purposely puts his head in a position to draw contact in order to cause a penalty to be called, just as with “diving” now, it is that player as “instigator” who will receive the penalty.
But what about the player who is carrying the puck with his head down, another oft-cited example intended to show how impossibly complicated it is to ban headshots?
In years past, the best way to move the puck forward was believed to be for a player to do it himself, stickhandling up the ice. Having his head down with his eyes focused on the puck was considered an advantage to him. It was only fair, then, that a defender have his own advantage and, unseen by the puck carrier, be able to blast him.