There is a constant debate amongst some surrounding the game of hockey about the need for and viability of fighting within the sport. The detractors argue that most who predominantly fight would not otherwise be in the league, while the supporters talk about how it has always been a part of the sport and that fighting can have a purpose within a game. That debate might be changing more and more with the results of testing on Derek Boogaard’s brain. Boogaard, who died this past May, was a player who made his living in hockey as a fighter, enforcer and tough player.
Today in Part III of “Punched Out” John Branch at the New York Times reports that the way Boogaard made his living in hockey could have significantly contributed to the condition his brain was in when he died.
Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as C.T.E., a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease. It is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. It can be diagnosed only posthumously, but scientists say it shows itself in symptoms like memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, even addiction.
There is no way to know if Boogaard's addiction issues and change in mood that ultimately played a factor in his untimely passing were a result of this disease directly, but it does add more dimensions to the discussion. Obviously Boogaard is not the first brain of a professional athlete to show this disorder manifesting itself, but he was by far the youngest and that is the most startling development of the study on his brain.
The scientists on the far end of the conference call told the Boogaard family that they were shocked to see so much damage in someone so young. It appeared to be spreading through his brain. Had Derek Boogaard lived, they said, his condition likely would have worsened into middle-age dementia.
Does that change the equilibrium on the role of fighting in the NHL? While one result should not be the defining opinion it is tough to argue with the comments from Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University.
"However, based on the small sample of enforcers we have studied, it is possible that frequently engaging in fist fights as a hockey player may put one at increased risk for this degenerative brain disease," said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE).
Regardless of these results fighting still has a place in the sport of hockey, but maybe the role of fighter/enforcer needs to be done away with for the well-being of people who are willing to do whatever it takes to help their team, even if their brains suffer for it. The Boogaard family donated Derek's brain to science for the rest of us to better learn how what he did impacts the chemistry of the human brain, so let us take the information and learn from it.