Monday, April 4, 2011

Get ready to hear about CTE

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
No, it isn’t something caused by a mosquito bite.
Get ready, because you are going to be reading and hearing a lot about CTE over the next few years.
It is going to be everywhere in sports as scientists do more and more research into what is a fairly recent discovery.
What we now know as CTE used to be known as punch-drunk syndrome and was thought to apply strictly to ‘old’ boxers; in fact, it was given its own medical name — dementia pugilistica.
But then along came Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist who decided there was something more to this than slurred words and some old boxers.
In 2002, Dr. Omalu took a long, hard look at the brain that had belonged to Mike Webster, a Pro Bowl centre with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
Webster was dead at 50, his fall quick, hard and unbelievable.
In a startling and frightening story that appeared in GQ in October 2009, Jeanne Marie Laskas wrote: “How does a guy go from four Super Bowl rings to . . . pissing in his own oven and squirting Super Glue on his rotting teeth?”
Dr. Omalu examined Webster’s brain and that is how he came to discover CTE which, in a recent paper in which he was involved that was published in the journal Neurology, is described as “a progressive neurodegenerative syndrome caused by single, episodic or repetitive blunt force impacts to the head and transfer of acceleration-deceleration forces to the brain.”
Webster, it turned out, had CTE.
Dr. Omalu later examined the brain of Terry Long, a Steelers offensive lineman who was dead at 45. He drank antifreeze.
There were more brains after that, but by now you get the idea. If you don’t, chase down Laskas’s story on the Internet and read it.
CTE is all about abnormal amounts of a protein called Tau. In over-simplified terms, a hit to the head can result in this protein appearing in the brain. During recovery, the Tau disappears, swallowed up by healthy brain cells. However, more blows result in more protein and eventually the healthy brain cells become overwhelmed and surrender.
The result is CTE.
And it is because of CTE that the people who control the way hockey is played at all levels are going to have to make some adjustments.
It is why the days of fighting in junior hockey are numbered. They have to be. The OHL already has moved to ban headshots. The QMJHL and the WHL have to follow suit before another season arrives. And if you are going to ban headshots, you have to outlaw fighting.
It’s one thing to have high-salaried professionals pounding on each other and a completely different thing when adults allow teenagers to punch each other in the mush.
Granted, there is no hard-and-fast evidence right now that says fighting in hockey causes CTE. But the evidence continues to mount and you would have to be a fool to ignore it.
Last month, two former NHL enforcers, Marty McSorley and Rob Ray, acknowledged that they are experiencing memory loss. McSorley, 47, had 273 fights during his NHL career, while Ray, 42, fought 287 times. Who knows how many bouts they had on their way to the NHL?
In a New York Times story early in March, neither would acknowledge that fighting played a major part in whatever difficulties they now experience.
“Think of how many times you’re hit during a game, and your head whips back or sideways,” Ray said. “I couldn’t sit here and say that fighting didn’t play any part in the damage, but it’s such a small part compared with the play on the ice.”
Earlier this year, researchers at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine examined the brain of Bob Probert, another former NHL enforcer. Yes, they found CTE.
Later, Probert’s widow, Dani, told The New York Times that her husband in his last couple of years “exhibited some behaviour uncharacteristic to him, especially memory loss and a tendency to lose his temper while driving.”
Think about that for a moment.
And then think about the hockey we witnessed at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Think about the hockey that thrills us every year at the World Junior Championship. Think about any international hockey competition.
There isn’t any fighting and the entertainment value doesn’t seem to suffer.
Concussions and headshots will be on the agenda when the WHL holds its annual meeting in June.
Those gathered will hear from the competition committee, a four-man group that is chaired by Kelly McCrimmon, the owner, general manager and head coach of the Brandon Wheat Kings, and also includes three other GMs — Scott Bonner of the Vancouver Giants, Kelly Kisio of the Calgary Hitmen and Tim Speltz of the Spokane Chiefs.
There were more than 800 fights during the WHL’s 2010-11 regular season. WHL players have experienced more than 100 concussions this season.
The WHL is to be given full marks for reporting concussions the way it does, and for the protocol it has put in place. This, no doubt, is one of the reasons why the tally has gone over 100.
But hopefully the league will take action in June that will help get that number down, way down.
After all, we wouldn’t want any of today’s players to be putting Super Glue on rotting teeth in 30 years now, would we?
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