Forest for the trees

By Saturday, April 7, 2012 0 No tags Permalink

Everybody knows about the ‘concussion issue’ in the NHL, NFL and hockey and football in general (youth-pro levels). It’s all over the media. Occasionally it will be discussed somewhere else, but it rarely holds attention for much longer than it takes to read or watch the story. Unfortunately, brain injury is so widespread and can be so debilitating that it is overwhelmingly ignored and, unless there’s a feel good story, or someone to blame for the injury, it never gets coverage. Concussion, and brain injury in general, is not a sports story. It’s a health/medical/human interest story with a sports angle, but it’s not a sports story.

There are plenty of stories about people who have been brain injured and how they’ve recovered, but you have to look for them. Stories about pro athletes or children being concussed are much more prevalent, and they’re what most people will read. I began writing this blog because I’m dealing with issues from my brain injury in 2003, I like writing and I like playing and watching sports. I was injured while cycling but the things that I find the most difficult are not sports issues, they’re day-to-day issues. The concussion issue has become prominent in hockey and much attention has been paid to brain injury because of the importance we place on the sport. Unfortunately, I think Canada’s obsession with hockey may be clouding our view of the problem.

The problem is not the lenient rules in hockey. The problem is not that players are bigger and stronger now. The problem is not fighting or illegal hits. The problem is brain injury. Once concussions were recognized as an issue to be addressed, our next step was finding a solution. We (society) skipped the whole part about understanding brain injuries. Hockey’s relationship with brain injury is not society’s. Hockey leagues are looking for ways to avoid brain injury and still leave the sport physically tough and fun to play, but hockey is not general society. When Sidney Crosby (or anybody who has had a concussion) has a headache, feels ‘off’ or otherwise feels that his body is not reacting the way he would like, he has those same symptoms regardless of whether he’s playing hockey, getting groceries or spending time with friends and family.  His concussion is a problem, not because it makes skating, shooting or checking difficult, but because it makes his life more difficult.

Hockey is looking for a specific solution to its specific problem – concussions in hockey. That should not, and almost certainly cannot be society’s goal. Brain injury can happen to anybody. While there are no opportunistic (or, as many commentators would say, “tough”) defencemen waiting to knock the heads off pedestrians crossing the street with their heads down, there is everything else. As physical and rough a sport as hockey is, not everyone who plays it  and not everyone who gets hit, is brain injured. As easy as it is to imagine vicious and senseless violence by players gripping sticks and wielding blades on their feet, there’s really only so much that can happen within a confined space (indoors, for the most part), during a set time. During a game, a player isn’t likely to fall off a ladder or hit their helmet-less head on a low hanging light fixture.

Life is not confined. Shit happens. It’s not your fault, my fault, his fault or her fault, it just happened. Blame and punishment are, for the most part, pointless and distract attention away from the real issues.  If you’re brain injured, you’ve got problems to deal with and blaming or punishing someone else is not going to fix them. Last year, Tara Bradbury, a reporter for our local newspaper did a 6-part series on brain injury. It was very well received and it really helped to raise awareness of brain injury. It is important for hockey and all sports to work on the brain injury/concussion problem in their sport, but it doesn’t have to frame society’s understanding.

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