The Sporting Scene: This Is Your Brain On Ice
Earlier this week, the Times ran a three-part series, by John Branch, on the life and untimely death of the professional hockey player and enforcer Derek Boogaard. It was a sad and riveting account that took in Boogaard’s difficult childhood in Saskatchewan, the itinerancy of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the mercenary brutality of Canadian major junior hockey, the woes and protocols of an N.H.L. pugilist, the easy availability of prescription opiates in professional sports, and the cynicism of at least a few N.H.L. franchises (and of the N.H.L. itself). Above all, the story dwelled on the damage Boogaard sustained to his brain. When Boogaard died last May, of an overdose of alcohol and oxycodone, hours after leaving a rehabilitation facility in California, Boogaard’s family donated his brain to researchers at Boston University, and they discovered, to their dismay, that this brain, just twenty-eight years-old, showed advanced signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a disease that leads to early dementia, and that is believed to result from multiple blows to the head. (Alec Wilkinson posted about Boogaard’s death in May; and Ben McGrath wrote this year in the magazine about C.T.E. and professional football.)
Do repeated episodes of bare-knuckled fist-fighting lead to brain damage? You’d think so. The Times, without pushing too hard, suggests that it does, citing as evidence similar brain studies of three deceased N.H.L.ers, two of whom were fighters. Branch gives less consideration to the possibility that the brain damage might have been sustained after ordinary collisions on the ice—body checks, be they legal or illegal. By the time a hockey player—any player, not just an enforcer—is mid-career in the N.H.L., he has run into other men at high speeds, with undue force, hundreds, if not thousands of times, since learning to do so as a boy of eleven or twelve; and that’s not even counting collisions on the pond, wrestlemania in the basement, kill-the-carrier at school, or drunken head-butting of street lamps on a cold winter’s night in Saskatoon. One of the priceless anecdotes in the Boogaard story describes him, as a boy, pulling a neighbor’s new trampoline up to the edge of his house and bellyflopping onto it from the roof; the springs snapped, and he crashed into the ground. It’s fair to say that someone who would do such a thing—and I’m not saying I haven’t—might not have taken the best care of his cranium.