If we only had a brain

As the grandfather of a tyke hockey player, I worry about injuries, particularly to the head. I have been following with interest the one-man campaign by Roy MacGregor in the Globe and Mail against excessive body-checking and fights that cause concussions. I was disgusted by the Globe editorial on the topic that said we should not rush to abolish body-checking in minor hockey. Expose young players to risk and experience, the editorial argued. What a ridiculous stance. It was as if they hadn’t been reading their own paper.

Author Malcolm Gladwell took a much braver position in a February speech at the University of Pennsylvania. He was talking about violence in football but the same thinking could be applied to hockey. His address, titled How Much Proof Do We Need?, traced the history of society’s response to black lung disease. Sufficient information was known in 1918 about early deaths among coal miners but no action was taken for 50 years. Thousands more men died terrible deaths as a result.

So, too, with football. With the growing number of deaths due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) suffered by former pro football players – Gladwell reeled off a dozen names in recent years just in northeastern U.S. – there should be no doubt about the connection between regular blows to the helmeted head leading to CTE, brain damage and early death.

Gladwell noted that officials at New York University acted quickly a few years ago to erect safety barriers when two students committed suicide by jumping into a library atrium. No further study was needed. In the case of football, similar suicidal deaths bring neither a speedy response nor any thoughtful study. A major reason is that alumni would complain if football programs were ended and donations might dry up.

As usual, bad decisions are being made on the basis of money. Gladwell recommends ending football in high schools and universities. He urged Penn students to boycott games and set up picket lines outside stadiums. It’s a bold demand that’s unlikely to be followed. But we can’t go on the way we are, allowing young people to ruin the very brains we are trying to educate for their future.

In Canada, let’s at least go back to how professional hockey used to be played – with deft passing and a minimum of contact. Fighting, hard hits and boarding should mean immediate ejection from the game. Repeated offences would be career ending. The new form of play would cascade down through Junior A to house league teams. Our young people deserve no less.

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