The Sport Media’s Perpetuation of the NHL’s Disregard for Concussions

According to certified Sports Specialist Chiropractor Jason Izraelski, up to 14% of all hockey injuries are reported as concussions across all skill and age levels (Izraelski). Recently, in the NHL, it’s become more apparent that head injuries, more specifically concussions, have become a major problem, yet continue to be disregarded. The main reason behind this is the way in which the media structures their reports surrounding injuries, in which they focus on a newsworthy narrative rather than holding the NHL accountable. This then directly affects various stakeholders within the NHL and is what ultimately leads to their blatant disregard for the health and safety of their concussed players. This can be seen all throughout the league with numerous players, but most notably Sidney Crosby, who has endured four diagnosed concussions throughout his career and has had countless media outlets fabricate heartwarming narratives about his journey. Ultimately, the media’s consistent downplay of head injuries provides the NHL a gateway to downplay them as well, without facing any repercussions for their lack of proper treatment and disregard for these serious injuries. 

Media outlets tend to downplay concussions and shift focus to other issues in regards to injured players. In a recent study, it was found that sport media articles use terms such as “brain trauma” least frequently (5.2%), when describing concussions, than simpler terms such as “head injury”, which were recorded to be much more frequent (30.1%) (Ahmed and Hall). It was also found that many outlets incorrectly labeled/described concussions by using modifiers such as “serious” or “severe” concussion, when, in reality, all concussions should be considered serious injuries (Ahmed and Hall). Similarly, these media outlets will tend to shift focus from the injury itself, to how the team will perform without the concussed player. This means these media outlets see these injured athletes as numbers rather than people, prioritizing statistics when reporting on injuries. Through these modifiers and shifts in narrative focus, the media outlets not only spread false information about concussions, but they provide a gateway for the NHL to downplay the severity of these injuries as whole. 

The sport media complex theory can be utilized as a starting point in understanding how the media and NHL have, overtime, created this symbiotic relationship; the media companies gain exposure for reporting on newsworthy injuries in a way that downplays them and the NHL benefits from this by having the ability to downplay the injuries of their players without facing any backlash from those media outlets. For example, star NHL player Sidney Crosby has been diagnosed with four total concussions over the course of his career, and every time the media described this as a “head injury” while simultaneously glossing over any gruesome details that would be critical in accurately describing such an injury (Boylen). This has been a common occurrence all throughout the years of the NHL and has led to the current sport culture surrounding concussions. In an article published in 2011 detailing Crosby’s first concussion, the New York Times spent one sentence of their article relaying Crosby’s symptoms, noting it was a “mild concussion”, while spending the other 99% of the article creating a heartwarming narrative of Crosby’s anticipated return to play (Klein). They chose to focus on a narrative that would drive viewership, while ignoring the real problem, that is Crosby’s traumatic brain injury. The focus on the anticipation of “when will Crosby return to play” from the New York Times puts the NHL in a position that allows them to divert their attention away from the fact that their league puts players lives at risk, and build off of that heartwarming narrative that allows them to return their players back to the ice before they’re fully recovered. 

The media’s hesitation to be accurate when describing concussions in the NHL has also led to the current sport culture surrounding these traumatic injuries. Said culture includes the encouragement of pain and suffering of NHL players, as those who receive worse injuries are placed on a higher pedestal than those who don’t (Cunningham, et al.). This type of encouragement fuels the NHL to get their injured players back onto the ice as soon as possible to create a newsworthy story line of a player hitting rock bottom and climbing their way back to the top. Not only do media outlets allow the NHL to get away with mistreating their injured players without facing any real backlash, but they indirectly perpetuate the narrative that players who show signs of concussion symptoms or are out for long term, develop a “softening of [their] masculinity” (Cunningham, et al.). This ultimately creates a double edged sword; players who return to play too quickly after sustaining a concussion are placed on a high pedestal while players who suffer long term consequences as a result of their concussion start to lose their masculinity in the eyes of the public. The media enables the NHL to continue to harm their players as they create positive narratives surrounding the various injuries. 

The hegemonic masculinity narrative created by the media outlets in the NHL is also perpetuated by the fans as a result. A recent study conducted on Twitter dove into how fans react to injuries of all severities. It was found that 60% of Twitter users understood the complexity and severity of brain injuries and oftentimes showed concern or support for these injured athletes (Workewych, et al.). On the other hand, the study showed that nearly 40% of users had the “It’s part of the game” mentality, meaning they viewed these brain injuries as normal and even, at times, encouraged it (Workewych, et al.). This is where the idea of hegemonic masculinity ties in, as fans are manipulated by the media to believe that NHL players are a dominant force that can handle anything the game throws at them as the media looks down upon anyone who shows signs of “weakness” throughout their recovery process. Back in 2012, ESPN published an article showcasing the timeline of Sidney Crosby’s two concussion diagnosis’ in January and December of 2011. Throughout the article, ESPN used lighthearted terms and phrases such as “He gingerly got up” and focused on his statistics with the team rather than the true problem at hand (Timeline…). 

Because of this, we not only see the fans perpetuate this behavior of encouraging an athlete to return to play before they’re ready, but we see how little NHL players choose to talk about their concussion symptoms and their recovery process. Going back to the Crosby  article published in 2012, ESPN relays multiple quotes from Crosby, such as “But I can’t comment on it. I don’t even know,” in regards to his concussion, demonstrating the hesitation of Crosby to speak about it in detail (Timeline…). Recently, however, former NHL player Daniel Carcillo has begun speaking out about how dangerous his time in the NHL was; he accounted how the concussions he sustained during his time in the NHL has had significant impact on his current life that is now filled with depression, anxiety, and lack of impulse control (Whyno). An article written detailing Carcillo’s concussion history is written in a way that showcases the harsh realities of a sport induced concussion, describing his symptoms in detail and how his current daily life is greatly affected. If typical sport media outlets such as Sportsnet or TSN reported on concussions as this article does in regards to Carcillo, the NHL would likely be forced to confront their mistreatment of concussed players. 

The media’s portrayal of concussions throughout the years runs incredibly deep through the fans, players and the NHL. Each of these aspects has a direct impact on the other, ultimately leading to lack of action by the NHL to take their concussions seriously or acknowledge the connection between NHL head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (Branch). The downplay of concussions from the media causes, what can only be described as, a snowball effect; the descriptions by the media perpetuate the socio-cultural ideals surrounding head injuries and hegemonic masculinity, the socio-cultural ideas then causes NHL players to not speak out in fear of losing their masculine qualities, the lack of speaking out from NHL players then permits fans to encourage injuries, which, all tied together, ultimately allows the NHL to ignore their concussion epidemic. There are multiple factors at work that cause the NHL to silently ignore what is happening, but it can all be traced back to the sport media outlets.

Ahmed, Osman Hassan and Hall, Eric E., “‘It Was Only a Mild Concussion’: Exploring the Description of Sports Concussion in Online News Articles.” Physical Therapy in Sport, vol. 23, no. Complete, Jan. 2017, pp. 7–13, doi:10.1016/j.ptsp.2016.07.003. 

Boylen, Rory. “A look at Sidney Crosby’s NHL concussion history”. Sportsnet. 2 May 2017.  https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/look-sidney-crosbys-nhl-concussion-history/

Branch, John. N.H.L. “Commissioner Gary Bettman Continues to Deny C.T.E. Link”. The New York Times. 26 July 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/27/sports/nhl-commissioner-gary-bettman-denies-cte-link.html 

Cunningham, Sarah M., McGannon, Kerry R., McGannon, Robert J., Understanding concussion in socio-cultural context: A media analysis of a National Hockey League star’s concussion, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Volume 14, Issue 6, 2013, Pages 891-899, ISSN 1469-0292, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.08.003.

Izraelski, Jason. “Concussions in the NHL: A narrative review of the literature.” The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association vol. 58,4 (2014): 346-52.

Klein, Jeff Z. “Crosby Returns to Form, and the N.H.L. Exhales”. The New York Times. 21 November 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/sports/hockey/sidney-crosby-ready-for-return-to-ice.html  

“Timeline: Sidney Crosby’s concussion”. ESPN. 13 January 2012. https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/7459581/sidney-crosby-concussion 

Whyno, Stephen. “Concussions in the NHL: Former and current players speak out”. Global News. 23 May 2019. https://globalnews.ca/news/5307081/nhl-concussions-players/ 

Workewych, Adriana M., et al., “Twitter and Traumatic Brain Injury: A Content and Sentiment Analysis of Tweets Pertaining to Sport-Related Brain Injury.” SAGE Open Medicine, Jan. 2017, doi:10.1177/2050312117720057.

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