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John McKiggan Q.C.
John McKiggan Q.C.
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Brain Injuries: Are Canadian Athletes at Risk?

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Brain Injuries and "The Crosby Effect"

The media, and the public are becoming more aware of the prevalence of brain injuries in sports. I have written about what I called "The Sidney Crosby Effect" : how Sidney's injury helped raise public awareness of the dangers of concussion.

Athletes at Risk

One can only speculate whether the repeated blows to the head of Jovan Belcher may have played a part in the tragic murder-suicide in Kansas City. Further concerns have been raised in connection with the relatively recent deaths of NHL enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak.

Study Links Head Hits to CTE

The New York Daily News recently published an article about a study out of Boston University linking hits to the head with dementia. The study reportedly confirms that repeated blows to the head, such as those suffered by football and hockey players, damage nerves which release proteins that pool in the brain and destroy cells in areas that control emotions and critical thinking.Here in Canada, CBC news reported on same Boston study linking repetitive mild traumatic brain injuries with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The study looked at the brains of 85 deceased men including several athletes ranging across the NFL, CFL, NHL and professional boxers. One of the researchers, Dr. Ann McKee, was quoted as saying:

"This study clearly shows that for some athletes and war fighters, there may be severe and devastating long-term consequences of repetitive brain trauma that has traditionally been considered only mild."

Part of the study involved the interviewing of relatives and those who were close to the brain donors for insight into their behavior.

Stages of Brain Injury from CTE

This portion of the research led to the conclusion that there were several stages of symptoms:

  • Stage 1: Involved headaches, short attention span and concentration lapses;
  • Stage 2: Evidence of depression, explosive behaviour and short-term memory loss;
  • Stage 3: Further executive dysfunction – including reduced ability to organize thoughts, make decisions, and further cognitive impairment; and
  • Stage 4: Dementia, difficulty finding words, aggression.

The effects of CTE can be very serious, ranging from headaches at the low end of the spectrum to dementia and aggression on the high end.In recent years a number of football players, mostly in the NFL, have been diagnosed post-mortem with CTE.

In the CFL, the twice Grey-Cup winning Bobby Kuntz, another linebacker, suffered from Parkinson’s disease and it was ultimately determined that he suffered from CTE.

Amateurs Also at Risk

Unfortunately, the effects are not limited to the professional leagues: In 2010 an autopsy was conducted on Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old lineman for the University of Pennsylvania who committed suicide. The results showed early signs of CTE.

NFL Class Action

Currently there is a class action underway by former players against the NFL. It is alleged by the ex-players that the NFL was aware of the dangers and risks of repetitive traumatic brain injuries and they deliberately ignored and actively concealed the information. The plaintiffs in the suit are seeking compensation and financial recovery for their long-term and chronic injuries.

The NFL's potential exposure in the class action was magnified recently when it came to light that in 1999 the NFL's retirement board paid a disability pension to legendary tough guy, former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, for brain injuries suffered during his career. Meanwhile the league publicly continued to deny, as recently as 2009, that there was any connection between the repeated blows NFL players endure and the potential for long term brain injury.

Are Canadian Athletes at Risk?

As of yet, there is no class action underway by current and former CFL players. While there is limited evidence about the awareness the Canadian Football League had about the potential for serious long-term harm to it's athletes, it is clear our athletes face the same risks as athletes South of the border.

The level of violence and potential for repeated head injuries are comparable between the Canadian and American leagues. Also, considering the recent findings from the Boston study, there may be additional evidence of CTE in the brains of CFL players.

Clearly there is potential exposure for a similar class action for athletes in Canada.

In my article: Is Football Becoming Too Violent? Do Ratings Trump safety? I pointed out that the NFL is at least taking steps to fund research to protect athletes. This year the league donated $30 million to the National Institute of Health for the study of brain injuries.

What is the CFL doing to investigate the risk to our athletes? What did the CFL know about the long term dangers to our Canadian athletes? Why aren't Canadian journalists investigating this issue?