Did Global Warming Cause Sidney Crosby’s Concussion?

By Geoff Grant

Here’s a Monday morning conversation starter for the casual sports fan: did global warming cause Sidney Crosby’s concussion?

No, the National Hockey League’s biggest star did not sustain a head injury by slipping and falling on receding polar ice. But he is the victim of the same kind of resistance to science that has made climate change such an accelerating and intractable problem.

In hockey and other contact sports, doctors have been warning for years about the dangers of concussions, as more and more research shows how dangerous they are, how remarkably easy they are sustained, how much damage they can do to players’ brains over the course of their lives. But the NHL has done almost nothing until recently to begin preventing them. And even in taking the tiny steps that they have – short suspensions for players delivering blatant, intentional hits to the head from the blind side of an unsuspecting opponent – they do not accept the considerable body of science that says so many of these players will experience unnatural cognitive decline as they age.

Crosby — and if you’re not a hockey fan, think Albert Einstein on skates — has been sidelined for much of the past year, including sitting out Sunday’s All-Star Game in Ottawa. Despite missing its most marketable star for an agonizingly long stretch, the league has been slow to try to reduce the risk of brain trauma for its players. Alarmed experts and many fans have called for the elimination of all hits to the head, rules common in international hockey, but they have been met with stubborn official resistance. The NHL’s, ahem, brain trust does not believe the game needs fundamental change.

Worse, evidence has emerged that another of the NHL’s traditions — fighting — has taken a heavy toll on its practitioners’ brains. Three notable enforcers died in the summer of 2011, all under circumstances that could be linked to the head trauma that was a part of their jobs. As the New York Times’ John Branch detailed in a comprehensive three-part series, one of the league’s most fearsome fighters, Derek Boogaard, had his brain examined by researchers at Boston University after he died of a drug overdose. He was found to have advanced CTE, a disease closely related to Alzheimer’s and believed to be caused by repeated head trauma. Unfortunately, it is not something that can be diagnosed until after death. Boogard was the fourth hockey player examined by the BU researchers and at 29, by far the youngest. All four had CTE. The center has been studying football players as well, 19 in all, and 18 had CTE.

The NHL’s response to its bleak summer news was more denial. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called the research “preliminary” and defended fighting on the grounds that fans like it. To Bettman, and the team owners for whom he works, fans’ entertainment is higher on the league’s priority list than the health of its players’ brains. They don’t want to change the game and risk affecting its popularity and thus, their bottom line. 

The parallels to the battleground that is climate change are startling from front to back. There is the science that people feel free to discount, even as evidence mounts pointing inexorably in one direction. There is the economic resistance to change, an unwillingness to consider a new business model. There is the inability to grasp consequences far down the road, even as cues emerge that the consequences are coming sooner than expected.

That resistance is all too familiar to climate change. Although climate science has evolved to the point where scientists are virtually certain that humans are causing the warming of the planet and there is every reason to believe that at least some potentially cataclysmic effects will result from climate change, public policy has changed little. It’s been 14 years since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, and the only thing different today is that greenhouse gas emissions have increased to even more alarming levels.

Even among politicians and business leaders who do grasp and appreciate the risks, there has been little momentum summoned for the real changes needed to keep climate change from becoming catastrophic. There appears to be a mysterious tipping point we have not yet reached when the dangers are alarming enough for society to loosen its allegiance to the atmosphere-choking status quo.

With climate, as with hockey, people seem to be waiting for the definitive A-leads-to-B line to be drawn for them. But just as it’s impossible to link one hurricane in Florida to climate change, doctors cannot say with absolute certainty that any one hit, or even any one concussion, leads to long-term brain damage and functional decline. In climatology as in medicine, science is rarely an open-and-shut case. Certainties reside in mathematics, not science. And waiting for scientific certainty when lives are on the line almost always has a very high cost.

As Ken Dryden, a Hall of Fame NHL goaltender and former member of the Parliament of Canada wrote on Grantland.com, by waiting for absolute proof . . . ,

“thousands of asbestos workers and millions of smokers died. The fact is, as a society we rarely have the luxury of waiting for science on big, difficult, potentially dangerous questions to meet its standard of proof. We need to take the best science we have, generate more and better information, then apply to it our best intuition and common sense — and decide.

“There are debates among doctors, now played out in the media, over the correlation between hockey's blows to the head and CTE, between blows suffered now and a player's long-term future. These debates will continue. But there can be no debate about the impact of those blows on players now. . . . This is about what we can see. This is what we absolutely know. This is about now.

“We look back on those people 50 years ago who defended tobacco and asbestos and think, How could they be so stupid? (Commissioner) Bettman and the NHL cannot wait for this generation of players to get old just so they can know for sure.”

Sound familiar? People who want absolute certainty in hockey are sacrificing the health of the current players, despite growing certainty that the news will only get worse. Climate skeptics are doing the same with the health of our planet.