The Media’s Continued Fueling of Toxic Narratives Surrounding Hockey and Concussions

It is no secret that hockey is a dangerous sport with several risks. It is a fast-paced game with physical contact. The surface of play even has hard, unforgiving boards framing it. The National Hockey League and the sport of hockey have been notoriously bad at handling head injury and brain trauma. The media coverage of the sport has perpetuated narratives that promote playing through injuries and toughing it out even with severe ailments. There have been a variety of consequences due to these narratives and it is time for a change in hockey. It is now up to both the NHL and the media to shape healthy mentalities surrounding speaking up for help and injury recovery. If the media continues to strengthen the already toxic hockey culture beliefs, the athletes will remain in danger.

According to Concussions Ontario, concussions are the most common type of traumatic brain injury. They are an extremely difficult injury to diagnose and treat. Concussions are complicated and doctors tend to have varying ways of dealing with them. There are many different symptoms associated with concussions, including headache, sensitivity to light, nausea, cognitive lapses and mood changes. There are also major physiological risks, meaning a concussion can lead to years of mental health issues and neurogenerative diseases which completely derail a person’s life. Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Neilank Jha says “In some cases people do recover within a few days and their symptoms resolve,” but he added in reference to the case of Sidney Crosby that “he would be putting himself at a high level of risk” should he play hockey with symptoms (as cited in Strashin, 2017).

Sidney Crosby, one of the world’s best hockey players, has even fallen victim to hockey’s lack of concussion protocols. Crosby was portrayed as an incredibly masculine, alpha male by the media upon his arrival on the professional hockey scene. He was hit in back-to-back games during the 2010-2011 season resulting in a concussion which kept him out for 10 months. After the first hit at the 2011 Winter Classic, he had symptoms synonomous with a minor injury and returned to the game. He played again, days later, with pain that was considered normal and was no concern to him or the team staff. He was hit again and continued to play. His concussion symptoms presented the next day. Even though his symptoms were reported as minor, there is no reason he should have returned to the Penguins lineup with symptoms of any kind. 

In a study done by Kerry McGannon et al, they found that Crosby’s concussion followed three sub-narratives a) a cautionary tale, b) Crosby’s concussion as a political platform and c) concussion as an ambiguous injury. Calling Crosby a cautionary tale is not incorrect as his high profile and elite ability caused fear across the sport because their big star’s level of play may never have been the same. It brought real media attention to the seriousness of concussions. It also refers to concussions as an ambiguous injury which is something the hockey world had seen proven by the media. No one is quite sure how to handle them or the conversations around them.

Quoted in an article by Bobby Brooks of Bleacher Report, Brian Burke, who was General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the time, said “I think the league has been a leader on the concussions. I think other leagues are looking to us on how we diagnosis and treat concussions. I think we’re a leader on it. It’s a serious issue in our game. It’s always going to be an issue in our game” when discussing Crosby’s situation (Brooks, 2011). This was at a time when protocols were weaker than they presently are. He admitted concussions are a real problem but instead of calling for change, he followed the pattern of calling the risk part of the game. Burke quite literally proved this belief when a member of his team also quickly returned to the game following a head injury. Burke later became a member of the hockey media in Toronto. While Burke is a part of hockey’s old boy’s club, there is no doubt that several other media members feel the same way.

Brooks said “the real problems with this whole [concussion] debate are the horrible screening standards, a medieval, hyper-masculine player culture and lack of appropriate post-concussion care” (Brooks, 2011) while discussing the danger surrounding Crosby’s multiple impacts.  This quote highlights hockey’s biggest issue: the culture curated by those within the sport and media.

Hockey culture is infamous for toxic beliefs and behaviours. Athletes have avoided coming forward with injuries or mental health issues for fear of being ridiculed by teammates, coaches and of course, the media. The media has widely encouraged belief systems that force players to show no weakness, play through injury and be the ultimate man. In an article by Karen Kaplan of the Los Angeles Times, she explains a trend of  “both American and Canadian papers [leaving] the impression that violence and TBIs [Traumatic Brain Injuries] are just part of the game of hockey [and] a risk that can’t be avoided” (Kaplan, 2013). She goes on to say “American newspapers used to report on TBI only when it affected star players” which connects back to Crosby’s concussion gaining major media attention (Kaplan, 2013). Hockey players are taught to prioritize the team over themselves in every aspect. They are taught to be low maintenance and give it their all, even if it kills them. They are going to war for their teammates and the name on the front is more important than the one on the back. Media outlets continue to elaborate on these when commending a player for playing through injury or dropping the gloves and taking blows to the head. They follow this pattern until it’s too late and the conversation of masculinity fades into one about another lost soul. The fear of asking for help is often deafening and NHLers are unable to recover.

Death as a result of a concussion is a difficult topic because in many cases, the concussion is not the direct result but rather part of the chain of events. As aforementioned, concussions can lead to psychological troubles including depression, anxiety and addiction. The media has impacted these deaths because of the athlete’s fear of asking for help. A piece like this would be remiss to not mention CTE, post-concussion syndrome and the impact of both seen in hockey. In a study done at the University of Toronto about the implications of serious brain injury in hockey, it was found that “the impact of career-ending concussions on players is of course not only financial: retirees with PCS can have significant physical and mental health issues including chronic headaches, anxiety and depression and difficulty transitioning to post hockey life” (Tator et al, 2016). Unfortunately, hockey has lost a number of players post-career, proving this statement to be true. 

Daniel Carcillo, a former NHL player, experienced seven documented concussions but believes he may have had hundreds of undocumented TBIs. Carcillo has dealt with symptoms so severe, his wife had to remove herself and their children from the situation so he could get help. Carcillo believes “the pressure to rush back from head injuries [is] toxic masculinity and something he had as a player” (as cited in Whyno, 2019). He also knows of many people who experienced similar situations.

There is no question that newspapers and other media outlets have a major influence on their viewership. That is seen even outside of sports which Kaplan also argues in her article. It would be naive to think that the media only affects players at the highest level of hockey. The NCAA has some of the brightest stars of the next generation but they too have been inadequately taught about the importance of brain health. Young people are arguably the most influenced by media. With the amount of time spent absorbing content, they are bound to believe the narratives pushed on them. Kroshus et al interviewed a wide variety of NCAA hockey players about the concussion education provided by their teams. They found that the NCAA has no true protocols for concussion education and the only effective delivery of education material was through an informative video. The video was done in partnership with the NHL Players Association and National Athletic Trainers Association. If athletes aren’t getting adequate education from their teams, and the media are not correctly portraying these injuries, how is the next generation expected to understand the risks of brain trauma?

This is where the media and the NHL needs to make real change. It has to start at the ground levels. If young athletes are growing up watching big-name sport media personalities diminish the seriousness of concussions in addition to their favourite hockey players returning from a massive hit to the head, they are going to follow suit. 

The NHL implemented concussion spotters at the beginning of the 2016 season. This had spotters at the game and watching remotely for potential concussions. While they have attempted to ensure safety among their athletes, the media has yet to truly attempt to perpetuate healthy narratives around brain injury in hockey. This needs to start with retelling the stories of those who failed to take their injury seriously and were left with life-altering effects. They also need to avoid any commentary pressuring athletes to return. Without a serious commitment from the media to change their discussions around concussions, hockey will never see a real change.

Brooks, Bobby. “Sidney Crosby Could Have Died: The Real Problem in the NHL Concussion Debate.” Bleacher Report, Bleacher Report, 26 Sept. 2017, bleacherreport.com/articles/625699-sidney-crosby-could-have-died-the-real-problem-in-the-concussion-debate.

Concussions Ontario, concussionsontario.org/.

Hiploylee, Carmen, Richard Wennberg, and Charles H. Tator. “The Financial Toll of

Career-Ending Concussions in Professional Hockey.” Concussion, vol. 1, no. 4, 2016, pp. CNC20-CNC20.

“Is the Media to Blame for the Brain Injuries of Hockey Players?” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 17 Apr. 2013, http://www.latimes.com/science/la-xpm-2013-apr-17-la-sci-sn-ice-hockey-tbi-media-20130417-story.html.

Kroshus, Emily, et al. “NCAA Concussion Education in Ice Hockey: An Ineffective Mandate.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 48, no. 2, 2014, pp. 135-140.

McGannon, Kerry R., et al. “Understanding Concussion in Socio-Cultural Context: A Media Analysis of a National Hockey League Star’s Concussion.” Psychology of Sport and Exercise, vol. 14, no. 6, 11/01/2013, pp. 891-899, doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.08.003.

“Sidney Crosby’s Long-Term Health at Stake: Neurosurgeons | CBC Sports.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 2 May 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/nhl/crosby-concussion-penguins-1.4096209. 

Whyno, Stephen. “Concussions in the NHL: Former and Current Players Speak Out.” Global News, Global News, 6 June 2019, globalnews.ca/news/5307081/nhl-concussions-players/.

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