In the October 3rd issue of Sports Illustrated, David Epstein and Michael Farber wrote a story about Sidney Crosby (‘Getting Inside the Head of Sidney Crosby’). Not surprisingly, given that Crosby hasn’t played in months, the piece focused on The Kid’s efforts to recover from post-concussion symptoms and re-join the Pittsburgh Penguins (who actually seem to be doing just fine without him, at least for now).
The gist of the article leapt out at me. Apparently, Crosby has been receiving experimental, or at least unproven, treatment from a chiropractor named Ted Carrick who uses something called ‘chiropractic neurology’ to treat patients with neurological damage. (The backbone is apparently connected to the head-bone). The particulars of Carrick’s technique aren’t important here (it’s mostly eye exercises according to the article), nor is the fact that the approach tends to be rejected as (horror!) anecdotal by the peer-reviewed crowd. What is significant, though, is that the article focuses on the lengths to which Crosby is now willing to go to get back on the ice after suffering two head shots in four days in January 2011.
Which brings me to another article in the same issue (FYI – it takes a long time for my SI subscription to be delivered to the UK. I’m reading October issues in November. Luxury problems, I know, but just in case you were wondering…). In the scorecard section of Oct 3, Dick Friedman offers an entertaining polemic on antiquated rules in sport (‘Get Me Rewrite’). Why, for example, shouldn’t the ground be able to cause a fumble or shouldn’t there be a serve clock in tennis or a bigger diamond in softball? Interesting questions to be sure as they remind us that the rules of sports are not only governed and managed by living, breathing people, but are also often antiquated left-overs from previous eras. This argument may not stand as a defense of instant replay in baseball (it’s just wrong!) but it does illustrate that those in charge of sports are also in charge of the rules of sports and should be examining, updating and tweaking all of the time.
So why then, did SI choose to focus on the efforts that Crosby is making to heal himself and not on the efforts that should be underway to prevent similar head shots to other players? Of course, on the one hand, there has been significant media coverage of the NHL’s ongoing negotiations – if not incompetence – in trying to find a middle ground for rules governing hits to the head. On the other, though, the chasm in such reporting is any direct or repeated call for a radical rethinking of the sanctity of hitting in NHL hockey. In Friedman’s column, the examples are funny. Yet, something tells me that Crosby and his family aren’t laughing about the effects of the current contact rules in the NHL. And neither should current and future players who are just one knock away from long, boring spells in dark rooms with no TV.
I don’t dislike hitting. That isn’t the argument. I cheer just like the rest when someone gets blown up on the ice. But I’ve come to realize that it’s just not worth it. It’s not worth it because we’re left watching David Steckel and Victor Hedman after they crunched Crosby when we should be watching (arguably) the best player of our generation skate into his prime. We’re left with collisions orchestrated by middling NHLers instead of the speed and skill of true superstars. And we’re left telling ourselves that players who don’t have their heads up at centre ice deserve to be concussed even though we know it’s a classic rationalization for a problem that we’d rather didn’t exist.
And, not insignificantly, we’re left with Sidney Crosby being left to fend for himself by seeking advice from self-taught brain doctors.
Frankly, the question of whether anyone deserves to be concussed illustrates the depth of the problem and the intractability of the issue. Just change the rules! What are we waiting for? Make rules that put the best players on the ice and allow them to do all of the things that make hockey great. At least make any contact to the head severely punishable. No, it won’t mean the end of concussions, but it will mean the end of some concussions, and importantly it will mean the end of concussions that are so maddeningly preventable.
At the very least let’s ask ourselves the obvious questions. Is Sidney Crosby really breaking the rules by going rogue in his medical treatment? Or are the rules of hockey breaking Sidney Crosby?