The recently unsealed emails—searchable by the Globe and Mail—that were made public on Monday by a federal court in Minneapolis as part of an ongoing concussion lawsuit against the NHL are a bit like a Rohrschach test. The hundreds of pieces of personal communication between league officials such as Commissioner Gary Bettman, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and then-Senior VP of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan are dots and blots of opinions and attitudes about what has become a serious issue not only in hockey, but in many sports. The reader can easily see things that appear to be very disconcerting.
It should be noted that many of these emails are devoid of context. According to the lawsuit’s website, plaintiffs allege that the NHL “failed to warn its players of the short and long-term effects of repeated concussions and head trauma, failed to adequately care for its players after they received such injuries, and promoted and glorified unreasonable and unnecessary violence leading to head trauma.”
Do any of these released emails prove that? No. But they do show that many high-ranking executives have been aware of the growing problems with concussions caused by fighting and head shots and aren’t treating the issue with the urgency it requires.
Consider one 2011 exchange between Shanahan and Bettman, in which the two discuss injuries that were occurring in that night’s slate of games:
“Any more concussions?” Bettman asks.
“Not so far,” Shanahan replies.
“Night is young!” counters Bettman.
The perception created here is of a glib or perhaps fatalistic attitude. Another that doesn’t look so good on the league is a 2014 email from the league’s Executive Vice President of Communications, Gary Meagher, in which he writes, “The nhl has never been in the business of trying to make the game safer at all levels and we have never tried to sell the fact that this is who we are…”
Bettman warned at the All-Star Game about how these emails would look, and he was right. “The selective released leaking of documents out of context may cause some people to scratch their heads, a couple of other maybe to for a brief moment be a little embarrassed about salty language or the like," he said. "But I’m very comfortable with our record."
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The league's record is what it is, but some of these emails are genuinely alarming, including Shanahan's concern about fighters who aspired to be “regular players” and instead became enforcers who ended up dependent on an array of medication to help them do their grueling jobs and deal with the physical toll: “Now they take pills. Pills to sleep. Pills to wake up. Pills to ease pain. Pills to amp up.”
Other people make the case that more care and concern need to be devoted to the issue. In this day in age, almost five years after the deaths of Derek Boogaard (overdose), Rick Rypien (suicide) and Wade Belak (suspected suicide), you would hope that even more shared that belief. What many of these emails reveal is a persistent, old-school mentality on the part NHL executives who feel the growing body of evidence that head trauma leads to dire short- and long-term problems belongs in the realm of mere conjecture.
Further examination of Meagher’s email reveals that the NHL doesn’t seem all that interested in even discussing the problem.
“NFL invests hundreds of thousands of dollars each year around their pr campaign to deal with violence,” he wrote before stating, “We do none of that and don’t view it as an important part of our mandate.” Again, this is from an email that was sent less than two years ago. Meagher may have been simply stating the NHL's traditional position rather than advocating for it, but you can read what he wrote either way.
As unflattering as some of these emails are, they are unlikely to provide the smoking gun the plaintiffs seek to prove their case, but they could lead to increased public pressure on the league to take bolder action on concussions and CTE in hockey. To be sure, there are people within the NHL who seem genuinely concerned about the issue. But it’s the words of the ones who seemingly aren't that are the most concerning. And they pose a rather nasty PR problem for the league.