Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Fragile Things

They wouldn’t have named it, back in the old days, the helmetless days. Like all nameless experiences, it was hardly even real, a problem no one had because no one knew it was possible. When they tried to think or talk about it, they probably interpreted it as the signs of exhaustion or aging, or the wages of sin- feelings of forgetfulness and weariness, headaches and dizzy spells, impatience and irritability. The worst of the consequences, when they eventually appeared, would look very much like the unfortunate, comparatively common dementia that sometimes affects the elderly.

Even today, most of what we- we the ordinary people, we the non-specialists, we who spent our college education on business management or English literature- most of what we know about concussions is that a) they’re quite common, and b) they’re not lethal, leading us to file them in the ‘minor injury’ category. Concussions are probably somewhere above the severe sprain and below the complete break in the popular hierarchy of bodily damage. Unlike many sports injuries, a concussion is something that a normal person might expect to sustain in a lifetime, in a car crash or a skiing accident. They’re not exactly routine, but they’re certainly not rare.

A single concussion, that could happen to anybody. Two concussions… unlikely, but perhaps. Get above three, however, and we get into ‘repeated concussion’ territory, and we’re now talking about a very small subset of people in violent or dangerous professions: soldiers, stuntmen, amusement-park-ride-testers, low-quality moose-impersonators, and athletes. A tiny, self-selecting sample of the population.

It was noticed first in boxers, who age badly. A successful ex-boxer at sixty might look something like a normal person at ninety- a speech-slurring, easily disoriented, emotionally unstable amnesiac. Football players, too, seem susceptible, although a smaller, less prominent percentage of them. Hockey players… we don’t exactly know, since so many of them- especially those who played on the rougher depths of the roster- have gone on to quiet, reclusive later lives. There have been no studies of them specifically (University of Toronto, what do we keep you around for anyway?). And anyway, among those who have psychically unraveled in their less-than-golden years, who can say how many of them simply had misfortunate genes, or drank and drugged themselves to brain-death?

Like smoking, like contaminated water, the consequences of repeated concussions have hidden from us for decades, even centuries. Human beings aren’t instinctively good at identifying long-term effects. Unlike the cost-benefit analysis, we don’t seem to have intuitive mental algorithms for the longitudinal study. We’re too readily distracted. This is why the Good Lord gave us science, so that we can substitute data for memory and tests for impressions, and thereby discern correlations over time despite spending most of our days making carbonara and playing video games and not tracking retired athletes for dizziness and irritability.

We put too much faith, perhaps, in our bodies. They are, no doubt, remarkably resilient. We take our healing powers for granted, becoming accustomed to them at an early age, but it’s actually quite astounding the kind of massive traumas we can endure- the wounds, the diseases, the crushing and breaking and bleeding. We ruin ourselves daily, with foolish risks and bad habits, and again and again our bodies repair and renew. We are actually, literally regenerated, and so constantly that we barely notice. Nevertheless, there are limits. We tend to be amazed by recovery in proportion to the scale of the damage- the more bloody, the more crippling, the more awed we are at the body’s healing process. The body does its best work in these dramatic situations. It struggles more with repeated injury, even on a minor scale. Dislocate your shoulder once, and you’ll recover. Dislocate it, then separate it, then tear it, then dislocate it again, and you’re going to suffer some permanent loss of function. It’s this damage- the unremarkable, recurring injury- that wears a body down.

So yes, perhaps it’s understandable that we didn’t empirically identify the long-term dangers of repeated concussions, but it’s absurd that we didn’t inductively deduce them. Body parts, habitually abused, start to fuck up. They stop twisting, turning, bending, filtering, digesting, pumping, and generally functioning quite the way they ought to. Why should the brain, so complex, so shadowy, with its bajillion teensy little neurons and multitudes of chemicals and its frail, low-wattage electrical flickers, be any different? Why should we have imagined that an abrupt impact, a massive power surge, and subsequent loss of consciousness would have no lasting effects on this fragile thing?

Shelve the regrets, though, and start from today. We didn’t know before, now we do. The longitudinal studies have been done, the science is in, and while the details remain murky, the conclusion is clear: repeated concussions cause brain damage. Maybe structural damage, maybe only functional, but damage nevertheless, of the sort for which there is presently neither cure nor treatment. That is fucking scary shit. There exists no universe, no world, not even in the dimensions populated by large-assed stegasauri, in which permanent brain damage is not fucking scary shit. The question is not whether concussions are very bad things. The question is why the NHL is so committed to the fallacy that they aren’t.

Despite a few impassioned media advocates and the players’ union, large portions of the hockey world are resolutely indifferent to concussions, taking neither the experience nor the infliction with the seriousness they deserve. The ‘debate’ over hits to the head shows hockey discourse in its ugliest, most reductive mode, the same one it falls into in discussions of fighting and visors: the nostalgic, macho old guard vs. the paternalistic, pussified new NHL. It’s a ridiculous dichotomy, foolish even when the issues are trivial, but bizarre and horrific when important things like, for example, brain damage are at issue.

It’s true that hockey, old hockey, swam in machismo. Courage, toughness, stoicism, and other such honorable but retrograde ‘masculine’ values are its currency, the primary indicators of virtue apart from skill. If you can’t play excellently, the next best thing is to play hard and a little bit wild, contemptuous of safety. Hockey has always encouraged intentional risk-taking behaviors. It’s habitual to assume players will take to the ice injured, even when there exists the chance of severe consequences should that injury be aggravated. The willingness to put the self on the line for the game is a necessary trait, and no professional hockey team would have use for a player who balked at physical sacrifice. There is, therefore, a native custom in hockey-land of minimizing all injuries- a custom all the more emphatic in the case of concussions, which don’t announce themselves clearly. Body injuries display in Technicolor blood and bruises, and most importantly, they cripple. For a long time in hockey, the door to the IR has been Capacity: if you can play through an injury- if with proper drugging/bracing/therapy, you are capable of skating and holding a stick more or less as you would otherwise- than you go on.

There’s a virtue there still, in that bravery and stoicism. Hockey is one of the few areas of modern life where we respect a person’s choice to place his passions over his physical safety, and we need to retain that somewhere. The problem is when that admiration and respect for a player’s choice to accept physical risk turns into a desire to expose players to as much risk as possible, to turn the game into even more of a war of attrition than it already is, to write our affection for brutality and contempt for weakness into the rules. Except for a few cases, unless the victim is a widely beloved star or the perpetrator is a widely loathed villain, the prevalent sympathy in hockey is customarily with the hitter and against hittee. Righteous is he who finishes his checks, accursed he who gets caught with his head down. There’s a part of us that likes the idea of ugly hits punishing soft players, that relishes the wobbly skating of a guy who’s just been shook up, that wants to see in the game a kind of litmus test of manliness. At what point does a reluctance to penalize hits to the head amount to an active desire to see the vulnerable hurt?

The consequences of more concussion awareness and a hit-to-the-head penalty are easy enough to predict: longer stints on the IR and fewer big hits. Now, the standard response from those of us freaked out by brain damage is to say- as with every creeping restriction that’s entered the professional game in the past twenty years- that it’ll still be a tough game, it’ll still be violent, it’s not that big a change. But that’s a lie, and it always has been. Yes, it will make players a little more careful with their health, and it will make more guys pass up the huge open ice hit, and it will make the entire enterprise a little less violent. Hockey will lose something.

But maybe that thing to be lost is something it never should have had. Those players fifty years ago, the ones who played without helmets, they didn’t know what they were risking. They didn’t know what it meant, the dizziness and the fatigue and the mood swings, they didn’t know what they were risking with every loss of consciousness. Yes, they knew the dangers to their knees and shoulders and elbows, and they padded those accordingly, but they didn’t know that they might be risking their senses, their reason, their feelings and even their memories. Players now, who know the stakes, clearly favor a penalty for head-hits and more medical attention to concussion and post-concussion symptoms, not because they’re pussies who can’t keep their heads up, but because they’re persuaded by medical evidence. Their forebears, tough bastards that they were, might easily have felt the same, if only they’d known. This is the one rare case in hockey where tradition should not carry any weight- the traditional tolerance for concussions wasn’t a deliberate choice reflective of the outsized balls of old-time players, it was nothing more or less than ignorance.

It is an open metaphysical question whether the brain creates the soul, but there is little doubt that it houses it. Virtually everything perceptible in a person- their aptitudes and foibles, their temperaments and sensitivities, their preferences and pleasures, everything that constitutes a personality- lives in the brain, and when the brain is damaged, these are the things that are lost. The person, as we know him, as he knows himself, vanishes by inches. A rotator cuff is a worthy tithe for a life spent playing professional hockey. Memory isn’t.


clavier arabe said...

thanks allot , much information

Matt D said...


I got the Habs greatest games DVD set for Christmas. Watching it is amazingly eye opening. Morally bankrupt assholes like Mike Millbury warn us that the game will be soft and boring if we curb hitting, but this is plainly bullshit.

The fact is that the game is far, far more violent than it has ever been: watching it on TV, the difference between the game today and the game in past decades is astonishing. The hitting was minimal and relatively low impact, post whistle scrums were rare, and face-washing non-existent. Not for a lack of passion, mind you-- 6 of the 10 games on the boxset are playoff games, including the Good Friday Massacre. But the play itself is much, much less brutal. And the hockey still managed, somehow, to be captivating. Hockey survived the elimination of bench-clearing brawls, it can surely survive a reduction in brain-scrambling hits to 1970s levels.

Anonymous said...

Love the blog - wish you posted more often. Then again your posts are almost essays so I guess they take a little more time. Another great read.

Anonymous said...

Matt D - Excellent point. If you watch games from the 80s on NHL Network or ESPN Classic, the hitting is just nowhere near at the level of brutality that its at today. They're trying to take each other's heads off. NFL is the same by the way. Way worse than 20 yrs ago, significantly worse than 10 yrs ago. And you're right, its not what makes the game great. Not the bone crushing, guy layed out on the ice hits. That's not the essence of hockey by a mile.

J.T. said...

Beautiful take on an issue that frightens the crap out of me as well.

Matthew McKinnon said...

Dear E,

I'm the online editor at walrusmagazine.com. Please drop a line.


オテモヤン said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
myCADsite.com said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
myCADsite.com said...

One other factor to the vintage 'manliness' issues was the the owners had complete control over who played.

If a player was injured, sitting out could cost him his job / spot on the team. Even though the players weren't paid a lot back then, it was still better than the average working stiff.

So I think that the culture of "Put me in Coach!" and playing through injuries stems from this era of people just trying to keep their jobs.