Monday, December 2, 2013

The NHL Needs to Ban Fighting

I went to a fight once ... and a hockey game broke out.

That joke doesn't seem so funny now in the era of concussions. As the NFL deals with increased scrutiny over the mental damage done to players, and parents fret about whether they want their son to play football at all, the spotlight on head injuries in sports has expanded to the ice rink with news of a major lawsuit against the NHL.  Several days ago, ten former professional hockey players - notably the enforcer types known for fighting - filed a class action lawsuit agains the National Hockey League (NHL), claiming the league did not do enough to protect players from the long term damage from head injuries. This legal move comes not long after the NFL settled a $750 million suit with its former players over the same issue.

Certainly, it's no surprise that hockey players suffer a fairly high rate of concussions, especially the players who are basically "paid to fight."  The grinders and enforcers are not on the ice for their prowess with a puck or grace on skates. They are there to hurt people.  And this just may have to change.  While hockey players and fans have long defended the practice of fights as "part of the game" or necessary "payback for cheap shots," those excuses are wearing thin as modern medicine learns more about the long term effects of multiple concussions.  And, it's become unacceptable in sports where the suicide rate is going up for players suffering symptoms of a brain wasting disease that results from repeated head trauma.

Perhaps the sentiment of hockey fans and players will change if we continue to put a human face to the dangers inherent in fighting and repeated concussions. The issue is being raised in the Denver area with a recent series of articles from Mike Chambers and Adrian Dater of the Denver Post.  The Denver Post is focusing on the head injury issue with a profile of former Avalanche player/enforcer Scott Parker.  Since being forced into retirement as a result of head injury side effects, Parker has seen his personal life and mental health unravel.  In a rather shocking story, Parker reveals that he was in 400 fights and took probably 4000 punches to the head during his career.  And that's just crazy.

There are many issues to be resolved, such as whether rules against fighting deter violence in the game. But it seems pretty obvious that the issue of fighting - and repeated gloveless punches to the head - is not in the interest of the game. It's certainly not in the interest of the human beings who play it.

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