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01-24-2013, 12:02 PM
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Location: Grand Forks, ND
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CTE, Lawsuits, and the Future of Professional Hockey

Word came out yesterday that the family of former NFL player Junior Seau filed a wrongful death suit against the NFL, alleging that the league "hid the dangers of repetitive blows to the head."

Mr. Seau committed suicide last year, and examinations of his brain later revealed that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is caused in part by hits to the head which injure the brain and can cause long term mental health issues, including depression.

There's also reports that at least two groups of former NFL players are now organizing class action lawsuits against the league, seeking compensation and arguing that the league knew the dangers of repeated hits to the head, but looked the other way to protect their business.

While I'm not a lawyer, and am in no place to judge the overall chance of success such claims stand in court, I do feel that there's a good chance that these kind of lawsuits are only a matter of time for hockey and the NHL as well. The deaths of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard, have already brought focus to the potential risks players face- particularly enforcers. While other levels of hockey (the NCAA in particular) have cracked down on fighting, imposing immediate game disqualifications and suspensions for fighting, the NHL continues to make fighting (and the accompanying blows to the head) a part of the game's overall culture.

All of this (and I know it can't avoid stirring up the entire "fighting as an integral part of hockey" debate) leads me to question what the long-term impact will be on the NHL and business of professional hockey. Columnists, pundits, and even former players in the United States have recently (over the past couple years) started to openly question the future of football. They argue that as the risks become more clear, parents will choose to place their children in other, lower risk sports.

On top of this, there are those who argue that professional football and other sports that involve regular hits to the head (i.e., the NHL) currently find themselves in the position "big tobacco" was in during the 70's and 80's- ripe targets for a series of major lawsuits related to "what they knew, and when they knew it."

I love watching hockey. Millions of us do. But, given what I now know about brain injuries, and the long term damage caused by hits to the head, I can't help but cringe everytime I see yet another contrived fight between designated "enforcers." The gloves drop, the officials otherwise tasked with maintaining standards of play stand to the side, and the entire "ritual" unfolds, with two men who might otherwise have no issues with each other hitting each other in the face so that honor can be served.

It might be a part of the game. It might be tradition. But I can't help but wonder, if the damage it is doing to the men who bravely step up to the challenge is eventually going to bring down the rest of the game with it. In an era of expanding scientific knowledge about the brain and increased concern over safety, can the NHL really hope to avoid becoming caught up in potentially business crippling lawsuits?

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