Derek Boogaard and the Athlete’s Brain
There are certain things the human brain is purposed for. Reason and creativity and logic and love and science and philosophy and poetry and all kinds of beautiful, helpful, weird and wonderful human activities. All on account of that most vital of organs.
These are the things the brain can do, if we choose. Then, there are the things we do to the human brain. Like make a career as a lineman in the NFL, or as an enforcer in the NHL. This is not to imply that these are bad choices. I’m a sports fan, after all. But they are clearly choices that impact the brain.
And it is the choice Derek Boogaard made, as he took the enforcer role for the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers. Boogaard died in May, 2010 at 28. The tragic and unfortunate death of Derek Boogaard provided a rare opportunity for scientists at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy to examine the young brain of an NHL enforcer.
Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease and has been diagnosed in the brains of more than 20 former football players. It can be diagnosed only posthumously.
The researchers at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy who examined Boogaard’s brain said the case was particularly sobering because Boogaard was a young, high-profile athlete, dead in midcareer, with a surprisingly advanced degree of brain damage.
Did the CTE in Boogaard result directly from his years as an NHL player? It’s impossible to draw and 1 to 1 connection, and is complicated in Boogaard’s case by his occasional drug use. But the BU Center has found CTE in all four deceased NHL players they have examined. With more than 20 diagnoses in former football players, the NFL has taken notice, as anyone who has watched the increasing conservatism of the rulebook regarding blows to the head and diagnoses of concussions is aware. But the NHL seems to be less convinced by the research linking athletes and CTE.
McKee has examined nearly 80 brains of former athletes, mainly retired football players and boxers who spent their careers absorbing blows to the head. The center’s peer-reviewed findings of CTE have been widely accepted by experts in the field. The NFL, initially dismissive, has since donated money to help underwrite the research…
The NHL is not convinced that there is a link between hockey and CTE.
“There isn’t a lot of data, and the experts who we talked to, who consult with us, think that it’s way premature to be drawing any conclusions at this point,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told the Times. “Because we’re not sure that any, based on the data we have available, is valid.”
The researchers at Boston University say that CTE is a nascent field of study, but that there is little debate that the disease is caused by repeated blows to the head. They said that the NHL was not taking the research seriously.
I have no idea whether Derek Boogaard died because was a fighter in the NHL. It is hard to imagine a 28-year-old hockey player dying and finding brain trauma at the levels Boogaard showed, and not see a connection, but my instincts are irrelevant to medical science. And yet, it seems the link between brain trauma and professional sports has to be at least acknowledged by the NHL. It may not be the best reflection on your sport. But if the science points towards a dangerous, life-threatening reality for your players, the NHL owes them at least acknowledgment and caution in regards to protecting players’ futures. If NHL takes such precautions, hopefully our professional athletes will be able to live a long life, full of the possible wonders that the human brain provides.