July 27, 2017

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CFL should do the right thing and pull its concussed head out of the sand

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Bombers great Ken Ploen is dealing with dementia after a hall of fame career.</p></p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

Bombers great Ken Ploen is dealing with dementia after a hall of fame career.

Three out of every 10 NFL football players will develop Alzheimer’s, dementia or a host of other cognitive problems related to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

That was the staggering conclusion of actuaries hired by the NFL last year to figure out just how much a landmark CTE settlement with players was going to cost the league over the 65-year life of the deal. The frightening numbers match data released by the players' union that same year.

I was reminded of that in the past week as it became clear that on the issue of CTE, the new commissioner of the CFL sounds a whole lot like the old commissioner of the CFL.

At a news conference in Toronto held to unveil Randy Ambrosie as the league's new head honcho, one of the first questions posed was whether he accepts — as the NFL does — that there is an established scientific link between playing pro football and CTE.

Ambrosie punted.

"I’m not a doctor or a scientist," he replied. "There are parts of that question that for a lay person would be impossible to answer."

That is, of course, absurd. You don’t need to be a doctor or scientist to agree there is a link between CTE and football any more than you need to be a doctor or scientist to agree there is a link between smoking and cancer.

Indeed, that’s precisely why we have doctors and scientists — to do the important research that we can, in turn, rely upon to make informed decisions on public policy.

See how that works? It’s a pretty good system, actually. It’s why there’s no more lead in your paint or asbestos in your insulation and why your car now has air bags but your kids don’t have the real, but deadly, kind of lawn darts.

But the system breaks down, unfortunately, when important policy-makers such as Ambrosie and his predecessor Jeffrey Orridge, won't simply accept the research that is right under their noses.

Think about it: If a bunch of well-paid, highly qualified independent number-crunchers hired by the NFL looked at all the available scientific research and concluded about 30 per cent of all NFL players are going to suffer from CTE-related diseases in their lifetimes, is there seriously any doubt that the rates would be similarly horrific for CFL players?

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist — or any other kind, for that matter — to look at numbers like that and realize that the biggest existential threat facing the CFL isn’t tiny crowds at Argos games; it’s the ticking time bomb that is all those damaged players, past, present and future.

Indeed, just last week, the Canadian Concussion Centre announced that an autopsy on the brain of former CFL defensive lineman Rick Klassen — who died last December of cancer at 57 — had found evidence of Stage II CTE.

The CFL players' association cited the Klassen case last Friday in calling for urgent action by the league.

You want to know why NFL commissioner Roger Goodell signed off on a CTE settlement that those same actuaries figure is ultimately going to cost the NFL about $1 billion in claims over the life of the deal?

It’s not because Goodell is a doctor or a scientist; he’s neither. And it’s not because he is a good guy with a strong moral compass — just ask Ray Rice’s fiancée.

No, Goodell signed away a billion dollars of NFL profits because in so doing he defused a time bomb and turned it instead into a cost certainty that the league’s owners can budget for annually.

And if, along the way, a bunch of badly damaged NFL players and their families get some desperately needed help? That would be a bonus in Goodell’s Machiavellian calculations.

Professional sports leagues seem to have chosen one of two paths in recent years when it comes to dealing with the links between contact sports and CTE:

Head-on — the way the NFL is now doing after years of stonewalling; or head in the sand, as the NHL has been doing and the CFL is apparently going to continue to do, at least for the time being under Ambrosie.

Now, Ambrosie is a native Winnipegger and therefore is a guy who has earned the benefit of the doubt; a fellow sufferer, and all that.

So I sent an email Tuesday morning to his director of communications, Paulo Senra, asking for a chance to talk to Ambrosie a little further about his views on CTE. Maybe, I wondered silently, they were more nuanced than "I’m not a scientist" seemed to suggest.

The league’s response? Crickets, for more than 24 hours. And then finally — just as I was filing this column Wednesday afternoon — a refusal to make Ambrosie available.

At least the Jets are prompt in turning down my interview requests..

All of which is, when you think about it, perfectly in keeping with the CFL’s approach to CTE from Day 1: "If we ignore this issue long enough, it will just go away, right?"

Sure, the league pays lip service to the CTE and concussions; "player safety is our No. 1 concern," its spokesmen will tell you, ad nauseam.

And the CFL, just like the NFL, has come a long way in eliminating the helmet-to-helmet hits that used to be such a big part of the game — and a big part of the problem.

But the bottom line is this: playing football makes football players sick. And while the CFL can ignore me, this issue is only growing in magnitude and a reckoning is coming, whether Ambrosie and his representatives like it or not, probably sooner than later.

The lawyer for former CFL receiver Arland Bruce — who says negligence by the CFL led to a concussion he suffered in 2014 causing him a spate of health problems — is presently asking the Supreme Court of Canada to take up the case. And there is also a separate and unrelated $200-million class-action lawsuit against the league also winding its way through the Ontario courts.

Thus far, the CFL’s lawyers have been winning a jurisdictional argument, with Canadian courts accepting the league’s contentions that any concussion-related claims should be dealt with in arbitration under the terms of the league’s collective-bargaining agreement with its players.

Alas, that’s the same argument that the NFL used with modest initial success in the U.S. courts, until the league saw the writing on the wall and abandoned what it saw as ultimately a losing argument in favour of settling with players.

And it’s also worth noting that a similar jurisdictional argument the NHL was making in a U.S. court was rejected in an interim decision last year that allowed a class-action CTE lawsuit to proceed.

At the end of the day, taking your chances in the courts on a public health issue is almost always a losing bet. Just ask the tobacco industry.

The NFL has been dealing with CTE as an issue longer than any other league, and so its experience on this issue — and the settlement that ultimately resulted — is instructive: sooner or later you are going to have to compensate players who have been sickened over the years in the service of your profits.

The size of the settlements, of course, would need to be determined. What was a billion-dollar settlement to the financial behemoth that is the NFL would likely be the high-water mark, with something more like hundreds of millions to players in a league such as the NHL and maybe tens of millions to CFL players, past, present and future.

That’s a lot of money, of course, but both leagues could survive.

The NHL just sold an expansion franchise to Las Vegas for $500 million; sell another to Seattle and you could use the proceeds from that to make things right with your players.

And the CFL? The league received a windfall a few years back with a new TV deal that pays the league’s nine teams a record $40 million a season.

A stadium-building craze has been underway ever since. But how about for one year, that TV money is set aside in a fund to help former CFLers such as Bombers great Ken Ploen, who is dealing with dementia after a hall of fame career.

It’d be the right thing to do for the CFL. But more importantly, it’d be the right thing to do for its players.

And you don’t have to be a doctor or a scientist to figure that out. Just a decent human being.

 

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Read more by Paul Wiecek.

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