Hockey

NHL Tries To Bury CTE Center In Paperwork, Fails

This was low even by the NHL's standards

Hockey
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Apr 28, 2017 at 1:05 PM ET

In a spurious attempt to further obfuscate the work of scientists, the NHL filed a subpoena way back in September 2015 demanding that the CTE Center at Boston University hand over vast reams of internal documents and medical data, an obvious attempt to bury the center in paperwork.

It’s a good thing that on Wednesday, the presiding judge, Susan Nelson, wasn’t willing to stomach the NHL’s bunk. She ruled against the league, stating the request would not only be unnecessarily burdensome and prove harmful to the ongoing study of CTE and related head trauma, but was a de facto attempt to shutter the CTE Center’s entire operation.

Via BU Today:

“Given the extraordinary breadth of the NHL’s subpoena, the record demonstrates a significant, overwhelming burden” on BU, the judge wrote. “Even setting aside BU’s valid concerns regarding the potential chilling effect of complying with the subpoena, the sheer effort in physically locating and preparing the requested information is staggering.”

What did the NHL want? Pretty much every scrap of information the CTE Center possessed, including information on the over 400 players they’ve studied, whether boxers and football players received a positive diagnosis at a higher rate, all the digitized photos the center has taken, and any conversations about CTE with peer-reviewers. Just compiling 172,000 photos for each of the 400 brains and spinal cords they’ve studied would take 13 years, Dr. Ann McKee, told the court.

The NHL is currently embroiled in an ongoing class-action lawsuit in Minnesota with over 120 former players who claim that, for years, the league failed to properly inform players about the connection between playing hockey and traumatic brain injury, willfully downplaying the inherent risks. The now-rejected subpoena falls squarely into the NHL’s overarching strategy since the lawsuit was filed: questioning the legitimacy of the science and smearing the former players. Commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly uttered variations on the climate change denier-like claim that “the science isn’t settled yet!” Which prompted Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky to compare the NHL to Big Tobacco, as did former player agent Allan Walsh.

Unsealed court documents showed that the NHL considered the plaintiffs “mere puppets” who were being manipulated by their attorneys and lacked the mental capabilities—ironic!—to write first-person op-eds discussing their current medical difficulties. From 1997 to 2010, the NHL’s Concussion Subcommittee failed to include a single neurologist, choosing instead to retain less-specifically qualified neuropsychologists, as part of a “turf war,” according to a former team doctor.

Another batch of unsealed emails showed the NHL ignored the concerns of league medical professionals and pondered docking an ex-ref’s pay in retaliation for speaking out about relatively short suspensions for blows to the head. The NHL can claim all it wants that the subpoena was driven by their desire to learn “what could have been scientifically known about head injuries and CTE at different points in time,” as the NHL’s lawyers argued, but it’s pretty clear that this was a fishing expedition targeting a party that is not involved in the lawsuit, and an attempt to extract some nugget of information that can be used to bolster their flimsy claims of innocence.

Alas, the judge did rule that the center has to produce any statements made to the press regarding the NHL and CTE, as well as images and slides taken from six former NHL players who the center posthumously examined. The NHL will surely treat that batch of medical data with the sensitivity, honesty, and respect for scientific inquiry they’ve shown to date.