Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - On Tuesday morning the NHL's official
website prominently displayed a story about the league's new multi-billion
dollar broadcast deal with Rogers Communications.
Buried near the bottom of the "Top Headlines" section, however, was a link
bearing the headline: "League issues statement on concussion lawsuit."
Like it or not, this is the modern NHL. Big-money TV deals are something the
league likes to shout from the mountain-top, while the ugly side of the game
-- the part of hockey that affects the lives of the actual individuals who
play the sport -- gets glossed over.
Ten ex-NHL players filed a lawsuit Monday against the league over its handling
of concussions. The news was hardly shocking, as it comes less than three
months after the NFL reached a $765 million settlement over concussion suits
filed by former players.
They say the NFL is a copycat league, but this time it's former hockey players
who are mimicking their counterparts from the world of football. Violent
collisions that result in repeated blows to the head are common to both
sports. And just like the ex-NFL players did in their lawsuit, the litigants
in the NHL suit are claiming the league was negligent when it came to warning
players about the long-term dangers related to head injuries.
The suit says the players were unaware scientific evidence has long linked
brain injuries to long-term neurological problems and that the NHL hid how
dangerous repeated brain trauma really is.
Now, most people fall into two camps on this issue. There is the crowd that
will always see a move like this as a money grab by players who should've
known the risks that come with playing a sport where heavy contact, and high
salaries, are the norm. Others feel the NHL is hypocritical for marketing the
sport's violent nature to fill their coffers, only to abandon the men who put
their bodies on the line for the sake of our entertainment.
Like with most issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Is this about money? Of course it is. But it's not all about dollars and
cents. I'm sure every one of the players behind this lawsuit would rather have
their old health back instead of money, but that's not possible. If you've
ever served as a jury member for a civil trial, you'd know the hardest part is
trying to correlate pain, suffering and other intangibles into dollar amounts.
It's far from an ideal system, but it's the best we've got at the moment.
It's not fair to say the 10 players in this lawsuit are purely motivated by
greed, but it'd also be unfair to characterize the NHL as heartless corporate
monsters who care nothing about the safety of their players. Through the
years, the league has taken steps to minimize head hits that lead to serious
concussions. That doesn't mean the NHL doesn't still have a long way to go
when it comes to cleaning up the sport, but it's going to be difficult to
prove the league was negligent in a legal sense.
Of the 10 men named as plaintiffs in the class action suit, there is not a
single star player among them. Gary Leeman and Rick Vaive, who were both 50-
goal scorers for the Toronto Maple Leafs, are the biggest names of the bunch.
Four of the other players -- Brad Aitken, Darren Banks, Warren Holmes and
Morris Titanic -- played a combined 98 NHL games.
When guys are complaining about serious issues like the "pathological and
debilitating effects of brain injuries" as they do in this lawsuit, it
shouldn't matter if they were "stars" or not. Then again, it'd be foolish to
think that adding a name like Eric Lindros or Pat LaFontaine to this lawsuit
wouldn't shine a brighter light on this issue.
And maybe someday players like Lindros, or younger guys like Chris Pronger and
Marc Savard, will join the legal fight and help bring greater attention to the
subject. This lawsuit is only the first step in this process and could wind up
being the first of many legal arguments brought against the NHL. After all,
few people believe the recent NFL's settling of their lawsuit a few months
back is the end to that battle.
In all likelihood, the lawsuit brought forth on Monday will end in a
settlement. You better believe the NHL and its lawyers have been watching the
NFL situation closely and if they can't get the lawsuit thrown out completely,
then they'll try to settle.
When it comes down to it, the cards are all in the league's favor. The NHL
will argue that the safety of its players is collectively-bargained between
the league and the NHL Players' Association, and therefore the players have a
representative in the process and aren't simply subject to the whims of the
league. It's telling that NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly found time to
mention the NHLPA in a brief one-paragraph statement in response to the
lawsuit Monday, while Leeman and Co. never mentioned the players' union at all
during a complaint of nearly 14,000 words.
Barring evidence that explicitly shows the NHL covered up or withheld
information regarding head injuries, it is going to be an uphill battle for
the players to win this suit. After all, the NFL lawsuit had evidence that
some folks felt approached "smoking gun" status and the players still wound up
settling rather than face the prospect of losing the legal battle outright.
However, it's also only the first shot fired in a war that could be waged in
the courts for decades. The NHL is well-equipped to fight these allegations
and they'll need to be.
This is only the beginning.
The Sports Network