Responding to written questions from a United States senator about the effects of concussions in hockey, N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman continued to deny a link between concussions and the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E.
He blamed the news media for fanning fear of the long-term effects of head injuries and defended the N.H.L.’s “more measured approach” to the growing science of concussions.
At least six deceased N.H.L. players, along with roughly 100 former N.F.L. players, have been diagnosed with C.T.E., which scientists believe is caused by repeated blows to the head. The N.H.L. is fighting a class-action lawsuit against dozens of former players who say that the league did not warn them of the long-term effects of head injuries.
“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,” Mr. Bettman wrote.
He added: “The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of CTE remains unknown.”
In late June, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrat and a ranking member of the Senate’s Consumer Protection subcommittee, sent Bettman a letter asking pointed questions about the league’s position regarding concussions and C.T.E. He requested answers by July 22, and Bettman’s 24-page response was filed Tuesday in United States District Court in Minneapolis as part of a so-called concussion lawsuit.
Mr. Bettman wrote his response in lawyerly language and footnoted it throughout, most likely knowing that it would be used in litigation and made publicly available. (“The N.H.L. believes that such tactics are highly inappropriate, and the court overseeing the litigation has admonished the parties not to litigate the case in the media,” he wrote.) It never addresses the specific questions, laying out the N.H.L.’s case in broad sweeps rather than in a question-and-answer format.
“We respond to each of these subjects below and in the course of our discussion hope to answer the questions you posed,” the letter reads.
The letter addresses related issues, such as fighting (relatively few concussions come from fighting, Bettman said) and the league’s history of concussion oversight and protocols, which have been widely criticized as little more than window dressing.
Mr. Bettman repeatedly blamed the media for spreading the fear of C.T.E., and accused the plaintiffs in the concussion case for a public-relations assault on the topic. He ended the letter by retelling the story of the former N.H.L. player Todd Ewen, who died of a reportedly self-inflicted gunshot wound last year at age 49. He was the latest in a string of former enforcers, including Boogaard, Bob Probert and Wade Belak, who died young after displaying symptoms related to C.T.E., including memory loss and depression.
Unlike some of the others who had their brains posthumously examined, however, Ewen’s brain did not show signs of C.T.E. That surprised Ewen’s wife, who said she hoped that others would take comfort that C.T.E. might not always be the culprit of a loved one’s unraveling. Mr. Bettman saw that as proof that public opinion had gotten unreasonably ahead of science.
“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 C.T.E.,” Mr. Bettman concluded. “Certainly, a more measured approach consistent with the medical community consensus would be a safer, more prudent course.”
Mr. Blumenthal’s interest was sparked this spring when Jeff Miller, the N.F.L.’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, was asked during a round-table discussion with Congressional leaders if there was a link between football and “degenerative brain disorders like C.T.E.”
“The answer to that is certainly, yes,” Miller said.
A couple of weeks later, old emails involving Bettman and the N.H.L. deputy commissioner Bill Daly surfaced through the concussion lawsuit. In one exchange in 2011, Mr. Daly suggested a correlation between fighting and long-term health problems.
“Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies,” Mr. Daly wrote.
“Ultimately, the most concerning aspect of the current public dialogue about concussions in professional sports (as well as youth sports) is the implicit premise that hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of individuals who have participated in contact sports at the high school, collegiate and/or professional levels are not only at a high level of risk for, but actually more than likely to develop, a degenerative, irreversible brain disease (i.e., C.T.E.), and that they should be informed as such,” Mr. Bettman wrote. “The N.H.L. chooses to be guided on this very serious subject by the medical consensus of experts examining the science, not the media hype driven in part by plaintiffs’ counsel.”