NHL Calls Concussion Lawsuit Plaintiffs ‘Mere Puppets’

It's almost like the NHL is trying to discredit the idea that their sport leads to brain trauma

Gary Bettman, scheming — Getty Images
Feb 02, 2017 at 12:30 PM ET

Lawyers for the NHL, whose commissioner last summer denied the link between concussions and CTE, referred to the former players suing the league over debilitating brain injuries that they suffered as “mere puppets” of their lawyers who “certainly would not have had the mental faculties to write lucid and sophisticated op-eds for publication in major newspapers,” according to a recently unsealed court document.

The class-action suit brought forth by dozens of players alleges that the league did not properly inform them of the long-term health risks of concussions and sub-concussive blows, nor adequately care for them after the injuries were sustained. Their lawyers retained CLS Strategies, a communications firm, to help craft media columns to present their case publicly. Former Red Wings defenseman Reed Larson, for instance, wrote a letter to the editor in the Detroit News in 2015, and longtime player Bernie Nicholls wrote a guest column for the New York Daily News.

The league’s attorneys had sought to subpoena the communication between CLS and the ex-players to “clarify the source of plaintiffs’ purported press statements,” but the presiding federal judge in Minnesota, Susan Nelson, denied that motion. Her ruling—made last summer but sealed until earlier this week—quoted the league’s motion, making that assessment of the former players. (Canada’s TSN first reported the ruling.)

Nelson noted that the players all testified that they reviewed and/or edited each of their op-eds; though they were initially drafted by someone else, each approved the content and bore the accountability, which really isn’t much different than, say, a speechwriter working for a politician or, as Nelson pointed out, a junior lawyer aiding a more senior attorney.

That the NHL would use such a tactic to undermine the credibility of the former players suing them over concussions is hardly surprising given their refusal to acknowledge a connection between head injuries and CTE.

Last summer, commissioner Gary Bettman wrote a reply to Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, who was a ranking member of the Senate’s Consumer Protection subcommittee, and wrote, “The science regarding C.T.E., including on the asserted ‘link’ to concussions that you reference, remains nascent, particularly with respect to what causes C.T.E. and whether it can be diagnosed by specific clinical symptoms.”

Bettman also wrote that scientists have emphasized that “the relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of C.T.E. remains unknown.”

As of press time, the website for the industry-leading CTE Center at Boston University says, “We believe CTE is caused by repetitive brain trauma. This trauma includes both concussions that cause symptoms and subconcussive hits to the head that cause no symptoms.”

As Bettman continued in his letter, “The confusion in the press about CTE—no doubt further fueled by plaintiffs’ counsel in the NHL litigation—relates to the simple and incontrovertible fact that none of the brain studies conducted to date can, as a matter of accepted scientific methodology, prove anything about causation, a primary subject of your letter.”

It’s no wonder, therefore, that the league is trying to cast doubt on the ex-players’ public words. As USA Today recently reported, the NHL has not donated research money to any of the four leading institutions investigating the causal link between sports and neurodegenerative diseases. (The NHL declined comment to the newspaper, due to the pending litigation.)

The continued denials by the NHL have not impressed Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who offered a damning comparison to the Hockey News: “It feels a little bit like the tobacco industry. ‘Oh there’s no connection,’ and ‘It hasn’t been proven,’ and ‘We don’t really know.’ But I think there’s so much evidence now.”