Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in the NHL

Today there was an article on the TSN website about Rick Martin, a former NHL player, who was the first ‘non-enforcer’ to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). While I don’t think my opinions on the subject are mixed, I’m still feeling a little unsure of what I think, so I’ll write things down for clarity.

First, I am very happy that the NHL, NFL, and WWE (among others) are taking the problem of concussions and repeat concussions seriously. While the implementation of the quiet room in the NHL was received lukewarm at best when introduced in the middle of the season last year, it was a start, and has been refined. The addition of Brendan Shanahan to the NHL disciplinary team has been a huge boon, and his heavy-handed crackdown on hits targeting the head have (in my opinion) been a very welcome addition to the game, despite grumbling from a few players.

But.

The scientist in me wants to know how abnormal CTE is in the wider population. Brains that are being donated for CTE research are from professional and amateur athletes that have had documented or suspected concussion issues during their careers. Whether this sampling bias is simply a media thing or there isn’t a baseline to compare to irks me. I don’t doubt for a second that someone who has had several documented concussions is more likely to suffer from CTE than somebody who has never been concussed. But again, within the population, many people are concussed (sometimes multiple times) in their lives, take a few days to recover, and go on with their lives. Athletes in full-contact sports these days have been put under a microscope with regards to head injuries – with good reason! Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to know when a case like Rick Martin comes up: is he ‘average’ in the population as a whole, or is he abnormal because of his profession?

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