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Editorials A chance for the NHL and NFL to get it right on concussions

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre looks up after being sacked by the Green Bay Packers defense during their NFL football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in this file photo taken October 24, 2010. A top NFL official acknowledged for the first time on Monday a link between football-related concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head. REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson/Files

ALLEN FREDRICKSON/REUTERS

There's an old joke in politics that nothing should be believed until it's been officially denied. Pro sports' undisputed champion of refutation, repudiation and obfuscation is the National Football League, which for years has pooh-poohed evidence of a link between repeated football concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain-wasting disease.

Thus, it was a surprise last week when a senior NFL official said there is a link during a roundtable discussion at the U.S. Congress. The admission creates an awkward circumstance for one of its peers, the National Hockey League.

If the door cracked ajar for the NHL to concede what the preponderance of medical evidence shows – that frequent concussions, subconcussive impacts and CTE are, at the very least, related phenomena – commissioner Gary Bettman swiftly booted it shut. Like the NFL, Mr. Bettman's longstanding preference has been to emphasize the absence of scientific unanimity on whether concussions directly cause CTE.

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The NHL is currently being sued by dozens of physically diminished former players who allege a cover-up regarding the risks of concussions; the NFL settled a similar suit for around $1-billion (U.S.). Now some plaintiffs want it reopened.

Mr. Bettman, a lawyer, understands the weight of words. Which is why it's strange to suggest, as he appeared to this week, that a football concussion is somehow different from a hockey concussion. Recent studies show those who play any kind of contact sport are at higher risk of developing the neurodegenerative condition. One study compared the brains of 66 amateur and recreational athletes from various contact sports with nearly 200 non-athletes. The incidence of CTE among the former was about 30 per cent. Among the control group? Zero. Given the legal and financial stakes, it's understandable to point at gaps in the scholarship and focus the argument on correlation vs. causation. However, the results of concussion research, a lot of it funded by the NFL, have become less ambiguous with each passing year.

It would be nice for Mr. Bettman to recognize a concussion/CTE linkage; it would be better if the NHL took further steps to limit head trauma. It could start by banning fighting, penalizing all hits to the head, and ensuring concussion protocols are always applied. The NHL has all the proof needed to err on the side of caution.

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