The NHL has done Sidney Crosby no favors.
The Pittsburgh Penguins star again finds himself answering questions after Monday’s playoff game against the Washington Capitals about the league’s concussion protocol and whether it failed him, a topic he’s tired of and, quite frankly, doesn’t think is anyone’s business. But the curiosity and concern are warranted, given both Crosby’s history and stature and the NHL’s record of denial when it comes to head trauma.
Be it the independent spotters’ inability to pull Crosby off the ice after he slammed head-first into the boards Monday in Pittsburgh or the NHL’s absurd explanation for why that was OK, there is every reason to question whether the league is doing enough to protect its players.
Crosby insists he’s fine, that he only had the wind knocked out of him during Game 6 when he crunched his head against the boards late in the first period. He was checked out by a doctor, Crosby said Tuesday after practice, and the decision was made that he didn’t need to go through the concussion protocol.
“There shouldn’t be any wondering about it,” Crosby told reporters, his irritation plain. “You talk to the doctor. I could sit here for 10 minutes and discuss what it is, but I don’t want to do that.”
This goes beyond Crosby, though.
The NHL has been obstinate in its refusal to acknowledge a connection between repetitive head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy or other degenerative brain diseases. In a letter to Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last October, Commissioner Gary Bettman pointed to “gaps” in research and reminded them that the “most recent Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport concluded that ‘the speculation that repeated concussion and sub-concussive impacts causes CTE remains unproven.’ ”
Even the NHL’s use of independent spotters is now suspect, given deputy commissioner Bill Daly’s explanation for why they didn’t step in when Crosby was slow to get up after slamming into the boards.
“Depending on the mechanism of the injury, ‘slow to get up’ does not trigger mandatory removal,” Daly told USA TODAY Sports. “The protocol has to be interpreted literally to mandate a removal. ‘Ice’ as compared to ‘boards’ is in there for a reason.
“It’s the result of a study on our actual experiences over a number of years,” he added. “Ice has been found to be a predictor of concussions — boards has not been.”
Oh. OK, then.
Let’s be clear. Those boards Daly is referring to are not cushioned like the walls that line race tracks or outfields, designed to absorb impact. Nor are they made of foam, felt or some other soft, forgiving substance. They are rigid barriers, several inches thick, and are meant to withstand heavy force.
To be blunt: Concussions and head trauma are caused when a body in motion comes to a sudden stop, sending the brain slamming against the skull. You could hit ice, the boards, grass or a windshield – it’s not the material you’re hitting that matters as much as the force with which you hit it.
But it’s all fine because Crosby said he was checked out by a doctor between periods.
Never mind that he’d already been back on the ice at that point, the NHL’s own records showing he was on the bench for just 39 seconds after the hit. And how thorough could an evaluation be when Crosby didn’t even go through the concussion protocol, a curious omission for someone with his history.
He has missed more than 100 games over his career because of concussions, including Game 4 just five days earlier.
Given all that, it makes me wonder if the assessment was anything more than this:
“Sid, you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Aw, he’s fine. Send him back in!”
That Crosby would say he is fine is no surprise. One of the biggest hurdles to combating head trauma is the athletes themselves, who don’t want to be seen as weak or risk their jobs by missing time or sit out key playoff minutes.
But that’s what teams and leagues are for, to watch players’ backs and take care of them when the players can’t – or won’t – take care of themselves. The NHL and its procedures didn’t do that here, and that puts everyone – from Crosby down to the no-names on the fourth line – in harm’s way.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.