More brains are now being donated for study. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University holds the largest collection of these brains. CTE destroys brains and destroys meaningful life beforehand. But we don’t know if there is a connection between hits to the head in football and hockey, between non-concussive and concussive blows, and CTE. But if there is a connection ...? What do we do until we know?
CTE looms. If repeated non-concussive and concussive blows in boxing can cause CTE, why can’t repeated non-concussive and concussive blows, the kind that happen play after play in football, moment after moment in hockey, cause CTE in football and hockey players too? To a parent, to an interested citizen, to the media, it only makes sense. To a scientist, not yet; maybe not ever.
But if there is a connection, what does that mean for the future of football and hockey? It’s a question decision-makers can’t not ask themselves. But we don’t know the implications of CTE and we’re not going to know, not for five or 10 years, not for one generation of player or more.
At the opening of the conference, Mark Aubry, chief medical officer for the IIHF and a team doctor for the Ottawa Senators, described the current state of our scientific understanding and treatment of concussions this way: “We’re at the end of the beginning,” he said. Through the auditorium, there were murmurs of agreement. Aubry’s words suggested to those present that, about concussions, we know so much and know so little; that we’ve come a long way and have a long way to go.
IGNORANCE AS BLISS
The conference itself suggested something else. As players, coaches, parents and league officials we want concussions not to be a problem. We want that their apparent effects are exaggerated. We want that concussions can be prevented by better helmets and mouth guards. We want that anything else can be resolved by better medical treatment. But concussions are a problem. Their effects, even only those we see – players out of the lineup for a few weeks or months – not including CTE and other things we don’t know, are not exaggerated. Helmets and mouth guards, according to every study, at most are a small part of the answer. For better medical treatment it’s the same. It will be years at best before science can offer significant new approaches. In the meantime as it does, games are being played, concussions are being suffered.
The answer to the concussion problem is not in science – for a non-scientist it can take a gathering of the world’s foremost experts to make this clear. The answer is in how we play. There are many things we don’t know. But what we do know, with absolute certainty, is that a hit to the head is a bad thing; and a hard hit to the head is a very bad thing. And this, as a basis for the rules of our games and the enforcement of those rules, for our strategies and techniques of play, for the culture of our games, where head safety is central and not an afterthought, where we don’t have to wait for the science, where information doesn’t have to pass to the smallest village – where we just know – this is a good place to start.
And now at this Christmas tournament, surrounded as you are by players, coaches, parents, on-ice and off-ice officials, by many of the people who decide the way we play, in the endless time between games and in the endless hours before the next day’s games, over Timbits and coffee, with a half a season yet to go, this is a good time to begin our game-changing conversation.