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Will NHL Take Action Against Concussion?

With Brain Injury Awareness month coming to a close, there is one final bit of good news: Pro hockey may finally recognize that game violence puts players at risk for concussion, and–here’s the exciting part–there are talks about how to curb head injuries. Perhaps they could take a lesson from the National Football League (NFL) and think big. Like, with a poster.

This past football season saw a new emphasis on concussion prevention, sideline diagnosis, and appropriate treatment. The NFL started its 2010 season by hanging posters in all team locker rooms describing the symptoms of concussion and clarifying the NFL’s position on how they should be reported and treated. Next, the NFL announced fines for helmet-to-helmet hits. During the first week after the fines were announced, three players felt the hurt: Two players received fines of $50,000, and one player–James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers–was fined $75,000.

Those changes were implemented because concussion is no longer thought to be just a minor bump on the noggin. Recent research suggests that repeated concussions may be more than just a passing pain–they may cause early dementia and neurologic wasting similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Repeated concussions have also been linked to some recent suicides. It now seems irresponsible not to change the rules of the game to protect players.

Well, football season is over, and now its hockey’s turn to try to make a difference.

According to an article in The New York Times, change won’t come easy. There are two extremes in the concussion debate:

…general managers, sponsors and fans who favor a ban on hits to the head and their old-school counterparts who see such a drastic rule change as potentially robbing the league of its rugged appeal just when its popularity is growing.

Interestingly, head-hits are totally banned by the International Ice Hockey Federation, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and the Ontario Hockey League.  And yet, the NHL still feels the need for debate. There is a partial ban, which outlaws blindside hits to the head and deliberate head shots. But checks to the head from straight-on are still legal. That’s right: It is perfectly legal for players to hit each other in the head as long as they deliver the head-check from straight ahead. Some are defending this Neanderthal practice. As reported in the article in The New York Times:

A leading voice among traditionalists is Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, who has spoken often about the need to preserve “the fabric of our game.”

Recently, Burke said: “We want that hit in our game. What’s distinctive about our game from anywhere else in the world is the amount of body contact. So we have to try to take out the more dangerous hits and make it safer for the players, but keep hitting in the game.”

But many others see new rules to protect players against concussion as inevitable…and logical. There was a time when people debated whether players should stay on the ice the whole time, or if substitutions would be allowed…and there was a time when helmets were controversial. Everything changes over time, even sports. In this case, medical science has discovered that concussions can be a serious health risk; it’s up to the NHL to respond with appropriate safety regulations. Broken bones heal, but brain injuries can cause permanent and life-altering damage. We challenge the NHL to emulate pro football’s response to the concussion threat.

To read the full New York Times article, click here: Regulating Hits to Head Tests N.H.L. Tradition

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