Attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) railed against NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s denial of any proven link between head trauma and the brain damage condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). A ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, which overseas professional and amateur sports, Blumenthal had previously written to Bettman with nine questions about the issue, to which Bettman replied in a 24-page missive that was filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday afternoon.
“I was surprised and appalled, because I thought the response would be more receptive,” Blumenthal told SI.com via telephone from Philadelphia. “I would’ve welcomed an acknowledgement for stronger action and a commitment to determining whether the game is causing these heartrending injuries with such painful consequences, rather than dismissing the link between hockey and CTE.”
Dated June 23 and addressed to Bettman at league headquarters in New York City, Blumenthal’s initial letter mentions an NFL official’s mid-March acknowledgment of the link between football and degenerative brain disorders, as well as publicly released emails from an ongoing class action lawsuit against the NHL from former players. “Those emails demonstrated that the NHL understands the prevalence and danger of concussions in the sport but has chosen not to take them seriously,” Blumenthal wrote.
Nearing the end of his first senatorial term, Blumenthal has been an active advocate for head safety inside and outside sports. This February, he cosponsored the Youth Sports Concussions Act, aimed at increasing manufacturing standards for equipment, and around Memorial Day introduced an amendment to “address concussions at United States Service Academies.” He calls contacting the NHL “a natural and logical next step. These were questions I wanted to ask.”
The first of Blumenthal’s nine requests to Bettman asked, point-blank, if the commissioner believed in “a link between CTE and hockey.” Much of Bettman’s reply is spent countering this assertion through various medical studies, articles, and testimonies. “At bottom,” Bettman writes, “the science just has not advanced to the point where causation determinations can responsibly be made … If that consensus changes, so, too, will my answers.”
Later on, he bolds and italicizes the following for further emphasis: “…to this day…no medical scientific study has ever concluded that concussions suffered by players who have played hockey at the NHL level can or do cause degenerative ‘brain diseases.”
In his final section, Bettman also criticizes “speculation and fear mongering” and “media hype driven in part by the plaintiffs’ counsel,” calling it “the most concerning aspect of the current public dialog about concussions in professional sports (as well as youth sports).” In particular, Bettman references former enforcer Todd Ewen, who committed suicide in Sept. 2015 and whose autopsy did not reveal CTE. In a statement last February, Kelli Ewen said her late husband was “terrified by the thought of a future living with a degenerative disease.”
Quoting the widowed Ewen, Bettman argues for patience. “This, sadly, is precisely the type of tragedy that can result when plaintiffs’ lawyers and their media consultants jump ahead of the medical community and assert, without reliable scientific support, that there is a causal link between concussions and CTE,” Bettman writes. “Certainly, a more measured approach consistent with the medical community consensus would be a safer, more prudent course.”
Blumenthal declined to discuss specific aspects of Bettman’s letter, like the mention of Ewen’s death. A longer response, he says, will come at an undetermined time. (This could include additional requests for information, a hearing, or even an investigation by the Consumer Protection Subcommittee, which would require prior approval from the chairman.) But, Blumenthal added, “I would’ve preferred there be no attack on the media, lawyers, and former players. He accuses them of ‘fear mongering,’ and then suggests that the kinds of questions raised by them and others could create unwarranted fears that lead to depression and suicide.”
Bettman declined to comment through a spokesman. But the introductory section of his letter ends like this: “…we are responding to your letter in the hope that we will allay all the concerns you have expressed. But, going forward, we do not intend to comment publicly on the matters involved in the pending litigation.”
That Bettman commented at all—let alone with 24 pages worth, filed into U.S. District Court in Minneapolis and subsequently published by the New York Times—is an interesting turn from his usual tightlipped nature surrounding the lawsuits, particularly since he had no legal obligation to make this response public. In other words, doing so was voluntary. Blumenthal’s letter only entered the concussion lawsuit docket because, in arguing that head injuries in sports have become a public health issue, the plaintiffs’ lawyers attached it as an example. According to a source familiar with the case, Bettman publicly responded to Blumenthal’s questions believing that Judge Susan Richard Nelson was “similarly entitled to see [Bettman’s] answers.”
Blumenthal, on the other hand, was far more concerned with the content of Bettman’s letter than the manner of its public release. “I expected a more thoughtful and considered response, acknowledging a responsibility to do more and to support research, but also to take action that would minimize this really evident danger,” Blumenthal said.
When asked about Bettman’s written citation of “numerous warnings and educational materials” that the NHL has produced in recent years, such as videos shown at training camp, brochures distributed to players, and posters plastered in locker rooms, Blumenthal replied, “The measures that were suggested in the letter seemed completely inadequate, and the tone of dismissing the link between head trauma and CTE seems really misguided, and so the response has really been dismissive and disappointing.
“Where we agree is that there needs to be more research and more scientific involvement. But at the same time, there are actions to be considered now. The consequences are personal tragedy, depression, anxiety, dementia, suicide—those consequences have been well-documented.”