U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called for the National Hockey League and its commissioner Gary Bettman Monday to fund research into concussions and brain trauma and the connection to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE.
Speaking outside the XL Center where the Hartford Wolf Pack play, Blumenthal, former Connecticut attorney general, joined Dr. David Wang, a physician at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center who specializes in treating and researching sports-related concussions, and Paige Decker, a former Yale ice hockey player who suffered a career-ending concussion in 2013, in calling for more research and advocacy.
“Common sense and mounting scientific evidence show there are warning signs and clear links between brain trauma and concussions and degenerate neurological disease later in life, including CTE,” Blumenthal said. “I’m here to call on the NHL to be on the right side of history and health and to show a sustained and serious care for their players in addressing this problem.
“What should be done is for the NHL to fund research and scientific study, impartial and independent research that will explore and establish the link between concussions and brain disease later in life. I’m calling on the NHL to fund an independent foundation that will support this research because they are a role model, for good or ill. They lead by example. Their dismissiveness of the evidence already sends a message to others who play and coach and support hockey.”
Blumenthal is a ranking member of the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection, which oversees professional and amateur sports. Earlier this year, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety, admitted to a link between football and brain diseases at a congressional hearing. In addition, several damning emails from NHL officials regarding injuries, concussions and fighting were released in March as part of an ongoing class action lawsuit against the league by former players, prompting Blumenthal to write a letter to Bettman about the issue. Blumenthal wrote: “Those emails demonstrated that the NHL understands the prevalence and danger of concussions in the sport but has chosen not to take them seriously.”
Bettman fired back with a 24-page missive to Blumenthal that essentially stated a clear connection between concussions and CTE has not been proven. He also disparaged “media hype driven in part by the plaintiffs’ counsel” and “speculation and fear mongering.”
“This message has nothing to do with the litigation that’s ongoing; it has everything to do with what’s right for the NHL to do,” Blumenthal said Monday. “I’m also calling for the NHL to cease its attacks on the media, media consultants and lawyers and others who are advocates or activists. It ought to take seriously the warning signs and links between concussions and degenerative brain disease later in life. This disease is tragic, debilitating and deadly and the NHL ought to adopt practices of safety and health that befit this iconic and treasured sport.”
For years, the NFL denied a link between football and degenerative brain disease and disputed former players’ claims that the league had hidden and downplayed the dangers of head injuries.
Wang, who has done research on concussions and treated sports-related brain injuries for over 20 years in both children and collegiate athletes, said while it is true that there hasn’t been definitive scientific proof yet that concussions from playing certain sports cause CTE, more research needs to be done and concussion prevention and treatment is vital. CTE currently can only be diagnosed after a person dies.
“The research hasn’t been done yet,” Wang said. “You can look at it [at] face value and say, ‘These people played a contact sport, they have CTE so therefore this sport causes CTE.’ But what if there’s a certain genetic defect they have on top of that? What if it’s more complicated than this equals that? I think that’s where we’re at right now and we need to figure that out and what would help us greatly is to have a test — which is being worked on — where you can diagnose prior to someone passing away whether or not they have CTE tau protein. Once you can see that, then you can do studies about who has this and why.”
Tau proteins build up in brains with neurodegeneration, but form a certain pattern in CTE patients.
“You can’t pooh-pooh it. That would be wrong,” Wang said. “There’s a pretty good correlation and people need to figure out what it is.”
Concussion protocol has changed over the years, Wang said, and it helps when professional sports leagues set an example.
“What made it difficult was when I’d take care of a kid, and I’d tell them they can’t play because they still had symptoms from a concussion, yet they’d watch television and see their favorite player on Sunday get concussed and get back in the same game — it made my job extremely difficult,” he said. “It was really hard to convince them to take this kid out when it’s good enough for Troy Aikman, it’s good enough for Steve Young, why isn’t it good enough for my child? Now my job is easier. Before it looked like I was fighting against the norm when the norm is what I was doing and the ‘abnorm’ was what they were doing.”
Decker, 24, of New Preston, suffered severe symptoms after her concussion in 2013 and ended up having to leave a consulting job in Boston that she had secured upon her graduation from Yale. She is currently working on establishing a nonprofit foundation with former Harvard hockey player Josephine Pucci, who returned from a concussion to play in the 2014 Olympics but opted not to play her senior year at Harvard.
“I hope that with these types of conversations that people will look at this differently and take steps to help out,” Decker said.
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