NHL offers pittance for head injuries

It was a settlement, but it did little to settle concerns about head injuries among National Hockey League players.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/11/2018 (1591 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was a settlement, but it did little to settle concerns about head injuries among National Hockey League players.

This past week, the NHL agreed to an US$18.9-million out-of-court settlement with 318 retired players who argued the league did not do enough to protect them from head injuries or warn them about the long-term effects of repeated brain trauma. The settlement provides up to $22,000 in direct payments per litigant, and up to $75,000 in medical testing and treatment. The NHL players named in the suit have not yet formally accepted the offer.

It was hard to find many people outside the executive offices of the NHL who like this settlement. The value of the payouts is very modest and the league is free from acknowledging any kind of legal liability. As such, it stands in contrast to similar settlements in other sports.

In 2015, the National Football League agreed to pay all players who retired before 2014 up to US$5 million if they are dealing with medical conditions associated with repeated brain trauma.

However, money and accountability are not the only major points of difference between the two professional leagues and how they handle the issue of brain trauma.

Although both professional leagues have taken steps to reduce incidents that result in direct blows to the head, the NHL stands alone in allowing its players to engage in bare-knuckle fighting, in which deliberate blows to the head are not only allowed, but lustily encouraged by players and fans.

Harsher penalties and longer suspensions have certainly cut down on fighting. There are fewer fights in NHL games than ever before, and the role of hockey enforcer — a player whose sole purpose was to fight — has been all but eliminated.

But fighting still occurs with alarming regularity, and not just in the professional ranks; young men playing in junior and senior hockey, most of whom have little or no future in professional hockey, continue to fight with reckless abandon.

In the past, we allowed this to happen because we didn’t know better. Now, however, the term chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has become part of the global sports lexicon. Moreover, the NHL has had to confront the fact that a legion of its most celebrated pugilists — players renowned for their willingness to fight — have been diagnosed with the same affliction that has claimed numerous former NFL players.

Remarkably, sports physicians have been warning us about the health effects of hockey fighting for many years, even before we realized that there was long-term, irreversible damage done to the brain. In 1988, the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine lamented the frequent broken bones in players’ hands and faces that resulted from fighting. “At present,” the CASM argued, “(fighting) is an endemic and ritualized blot on the reputation of the North American game.”

Fighting remains a blot on the game, one that is becoming more and more difficult, and expensive, to justify. The NHL, and much of the greater hockey world continue to cling to fighting as some sort of perverse cultural tradition. One can only hope that as the compensation cheques get bigger, it will force the stewards of the game to reconsider, and put safety ahead of a barbaric cultural tradition.

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