If the superb three-part New York Times series by John Branch on the death of 28-year-old hockey player Derek Boogaard had only added vestigially to what’s being called “concussion awareness,” then it would rate no more than a gentleman’s C. I’m happy to be praising Branch for accomplishing so much more – putting chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the context of what I have called the “cocktail of death” in contact sports and entertainment. Give the Gray Lady and its reporter an A+.
Give credit, also, to the Boston University Center for the Study of CTE and to concussion go-to guy Chris Nowinski for coming back from the credibility hit they took for overhyping the CTE findings of another recently deceased ex-National Hockey Leaguer, Rick Martin.
The hockey establishment had scored a TKO in its debate with Nowinski over the claim that Martin, a non-brawler in his late fifties, had “stage 2” CTE, from which the public was asked to extrapolate that he “definitely” would have faced hockey-related dementia had he not died first of a heart attack. As I argued at the time, that was a stretch: more about the Boston group’s territorial claims to concussion research than about deepening public understanding.
But I try to call them as I see them, and I see the Boogaard story, as sketched by The Times, very differently. Here I think the hockey mavens’ attempts to disclaim its implications come off not as healthy skepticism but, rather, as classic and unfortunate defensiveness in the face of facts.
The difference resides in the word “story.” Branch doesn’t present bloodless, atomized lab reports and expect general readers to accept them as the teachings of the priesthood. Instead, he weaves a compelling narrative of Boogaard’s violent life and work, leading to episodes documenting his mental deterioration.
In addition – and this is absolutely key – the story has no need to choose or champion any single cause of the player’s specific and final demise. Was it the concussions? The booze? The painkillers? The clinical depression, somehow divorced from all of the above?
Correct answer: It was all of them, as it almost always is, in different measures in different people.
I hope the hockey industry now moves more aggressively and effectively than the football industry has to date on stemming the lifelong damage inflicted by the system on everyone from highly paid, eyes-wide-open pros all the way down to clueless kids and their parents.
I also hope Nowinski and company recognize a good model for public education when they see one, and in the future don’t push robotically past complexities outside the four walls of their funded research grants.