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Is the CFL stuck in 2011 in regard to football brain injury?

Arland Bruce

April 20, 2018
Terry Ott

Editors note:  I’d like to welcome Terry Ott to the volunteer writing staff at Advocacy for Fairness in Sports.  He will be our eyes, ears, and voice for Canada, focusing on the CFL.  In the preamble to his story, he gives us some background on how difficult it is for sports related brain injury to receive press north of the border.  ~Sheilla

Terry: I began reporting on concussions in the Canadian Football League in early 2013. Except for one story that appeared in a regional newspaper in the winter of 2013, I have been shut out of Canadian media and had the bulk of my work published in The Concussion Blog.

In December of 2017, the Toronto Star authorized me to do a lengthy piece on the history of concussion/CTE awareness in the CFL.   At that time I was asked what sort of “timeline” I was thinking of for the piece to run-originally thought to be around 2000 words-and after multiple revisions, updates, and adds,through out December 2017 and January 2018, the sports editor e-mailed to say he was planning on running it by the end of January.

At no time throughout the near two month process was I informed that there were any problems or issues with the piece but on Jan.24 I was contacted by the Star sports deputy editor requesting multiple “legal  questions regarding the ongoing lawsuits filed against the CFL in 2014 and 2015. I was thanked by the deputy editor for supplying the answers to his questions within an hour of his query. However, neither the editor nor deputy editor answered any subsequent emails from me until Feb 3, when I was informed that “unfortunately” my story would not be running, because, the deputy editor claimed, the issues I addressed in the story had already been covered in the Star.

This claim is patently misleading, as the narrative I provided in the story addressed the recent history of the CFL’s position of concussions, doctors who worked in conjunction with them, and former players’ advocacy to downplay and question the connection between football concussions and CTE-something that continues to this day- and this material had not previously appeared in the Star.

 At this time, I will leave  it to the reader to decide what the above points ultimately mean.

NB: Since the original writing of the story to follow, the Canadian Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by former CFL player Arland Bruce, whose first of a kind 2014 concussion injury lawsuit was thrown out by two Canadian courts.

The Canadian Football league may be at the most important crossroads in its 105-year history.  Despite steadily rising viewer numbers and revenues from television in Canada and the United States, five new modern stadiums constructed in the past four seasons with healthy attendance numbers and increasingly attractive internet and social media platforms, the CFL faces the possibility of a $200 million dollar class action suit also alleging injury from concussion and now comprising some 200 members.

During Grey Cup 2017 week in Ottawa, new CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie confounded many followers of the league when he announced that he considered the “science” between concussion injury and the development of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) a degenerative brain disease usually leading to serious disability and premature death, was “unclear.”

This continues a pattern established in 2011 when the league announced an increased concussion awareness initiative but still pushed back on the link between concussion and CTE at a time when ESPN writers produced the book League of Denial, a detailed autopsy on the National Football League’s attempts to downplay and censure the possible causal relationship between football concussions and CTE. At the time, the league was in court facing a multimillion dollar lawsuit from former players for concussion injury, which resulted in an uncapped settlement.   And the NFL now acknowledges a link between football concussions and CTE, with the CFL presently remaining an outlier on the question.

The groundbreaking research done by Boston University CTE Research Center and Dr. Ann McKee in 2012 established a very strong and sometimes  unequivocal relationship between football concussion injury and the development of CTE with McKee once asking the question whether all former players with brain injury may be so impaired, as well as noting that CTE is virtually undiagnosed outside of head injuries such as those inherent to football. BU continues to be a leader in CTE research in the United States and around the world and recently announced that they may have developed a method of identifying CTE in living patients.  In a recent CBS 60 Minutes report, BU researchers have noted in their studies with mice that although their brains may appear to be normal immediately after severe concussion injury-a factor that researchers found “shocking”- CTE-like disease is likely later on.  This is a  possibility that extrapolated to football could put a further chill on the game, rendering league “concussion protocols,” considerably moot.

Dr. Gillian Hotz, a Canadian ex-pat neuroscientist now into her third decade of concussion research at the University of Miami’s youth health concussion clinic was instrumental in the introduction of a new law in Florida preventing concussed high school football players from returning immediately to play. “This is crazy! These kids are killing each other,” she recently told The University of Miami Magazine.

Now the Miami researchers are developing a pair of computerized goggles that the believe “quickly and accurately diagnose concussions” as well as research into a cannabinoid pill that may alleviate symptoms of concussion that should be in clinical trials next year.

Yet in Canada, noted neurosurgeon and brain researcher Dr. Charles Tator of the Canadian Concussion Centre and Krembil Neurosciences took a different approach. They produced a 2013 study entitled “Absence of CTE in Retired Football Players With Multiple Concussions and Neurological Symptomatology” in which although 3 of the 6 subjects involved were found to have CTE at autopsy, and one other with ALS which may be the result of concussion injury, Dr. Tator advised “extreme caution” in linking concussion with CTE and also stated that there were “more questions than answers” about concussion and CTE.

Dr.Tator also appeared at odds with the BU researchers over CTE, complaining in a 2015 Yahoo! Canada sports story that BU researchers “gotten into the habit of calling a media conference every time they find a case of CTE.” The article asked if there was “a brain battle brewing.”

In July 2014, Dr. Tator was named as a defendant in the Bruce lawsuit with the “Absence Of” study so noted in the pleadings.  A spokesperson for Dr.Tator, Alexa Giorgi, initially declined to answer questions regarding Dr. Tator’s “Absence Of” study and its ramifications citing ongoing legal matters but after answering a follow-up question asking for clarification on what appears to now be Dr. Tator’s evolving clinical opinion on cause and effect of CTE-the Canadian Concussion Centre website says that concussion “can result” in CTE- she replied that she “could not clarify any further.”

Giorgi also said that contrary to a Jan 2., 2014 e-mail to the reporter from Dr. Tator in which Tator wrote that the CFL had then been “more supportive” in providing financial support for CTE research, Giorgi maintained any funding obtained from the CFL was earmarked for an information “symposium” on concussion and CTE not a specific CTE study.

The July 2014 filing of the Bruce lawsuit, first reported by The Concussion Blog in Chicago, was the pigskin canary in the coal mine for waking up the CFL to the realities of the new paradigm of football concussions and liability of the league.

The Bruce pleadings were later dismissed by the court in British Columbia on the basis of a jurisdictional exception with the court ruling that members of a collective bargaining agreement-as all CFL players since 1974 are so covered-cannot sue their employers for damages but rather must use arbitration provided for in the CBA to seek relief. However, the class action suit against the CFL, if it was certified by the court, includes many players that did not play under a CBA which may affect future CFL legal defenses to the suit.  Irregardless, the CFL could conceivably face hundreds of individual arbitration hearings from former players looking for compensation which could reach into the millions of dollars.

On March 15, the Canadian Supreme Court upheld the rulings of the lower courts in the Bruce case leaving him and potentially others with few if any options for relief. [Editor’s note: This is similar to the preemption argument in the American court system which Concussion Settlement opt-outs must now try to overcome.]

Former CFL linebacker Leo Ezerins, now executive director of the CFL Alumni  Association was a contributor to Dr. Tator’s “Absence Of” study, and was also named as a defendant in the Bruce suit. As noted in the Bruce statement of claim, Ezerins had said at a function that “our game [football] is under attack.” Ezerins did not respond to several emails asking for his input for this story.

Additionally, in an interview with Ezerins published in The Concussion Blog in 2013, Ezerins said that some former players and others were on “a feed bag” regarding CTE, and complained about Chris Nowinski, founder of BU’s Concussion Legacy Foundation and a strong advocate for CTE investigation:

“And then Leo said he had been involved in what politely may be described as a difference of opinion with a high-profile BU doctor well-known for CTE research. According to Leo, it escalated to the point that Nowinski then invited Ezerins to refrain from trying to unduly antagonize his researchers, although Ezerins did not elaborate exactly what the difference of opinion had been.”

Phil Colwell, 61, a star Canadian halfback out of Wilfred Laurier University and Hamilton Tiger-Cat in 1980 said he is suffering from post-concussion injury, complaining of memory loss, vertigo, depression, rage, and even suicide ideation which he blames on several concussions suffered while playing in the CFL, the worst occurring while with the Toronto Argos in a game in Winnipeg against the Blue Bombers in October 1981.  Ironically, it was a game that also featured linebacker Ezerins playing for Winnipeg.

Colwell was covering a kick and was blindsided and knocked out, helped off the field and spent the rest of the game on the bench, still woozy. He said he received no special medical treatment and travelled back to Toronto later that night with the team doctor advising only for Colwell not go to sleep. Colwell, only hours after being knocked out, drove his car back to his home in Kitchener, Ontario.

“Were the media who reported on the links of smoking to cancer on  ‘feedbags’?  Is it being (on) a feedbag by trying to bring attention to a proven link of concussions to CTE by BU? Or is a CFLAA representative who sides more with teams rather than the players [on] the feedbag”, asked  Colwell in an e-mail.

Colwell now lives on the Isle of Arran, Scotland, regrets his 3 season CFL career, is a participant in the class action against the league, and said that what he believes are the result of concussion injuries have left him with “the symptoms I have; I can’t even stand or balance on a step stool without  losing balance and falling.” As a result of Colwell’s disabilities, he recently lost a long tenured position with the Royal Mail.

Fellow Laurier Golden Hawk John Glassford, 65, who starred at linebacker for the Ottawa Rough Riders from 1980 to 1988 and the defensive MVP for the Rough Riders in the 1981 Grey Cup-a game the Riders lost to the Edmonton Eskimos-and former Golden Hawk Jim Reid, a big, hard rock old school fullback who played for the Ottawa Rough Riders from 1980 to 1989, have different takes on their playing careers compared to that of  Colwell.

Reid, 60, a successful car fleet manager in Kitchener, Ontario is a man of few and concise words and when asked if he was suffering any post football cognitive issues as the result of a 10 year pro career and whether he would be a pro football player now given all the dangers being exposed said that there were “no [after] effects on my end” and that football would still be his desired occupation because of “just love of game ,teammates, competition.”  Back in the day, it was said that Reid did not get concussions, he gave them.

John Glassford, 65, recalls several serious concussions received while playing for the Rough Riders, especially in his MVP performance in the 1981  Grey Cup when he collided with 230lb Eskimos’ fullback Neil Lumsden, a hit that resulted in Glassford being knocked near unconsciousness with an inability to focus his left eye for 10 minutes. Despite the serious injuries, he said he returned to the game within several plays despite still being impaired, however, Glassford, a successful car dealership owner, and now some 30 years removed from his CFL playing days, claims no ill cognitive or physical effects from a 7 season career other than “getting out of bed in the morning,” adding that he would not be a part of the current class action lawsuit against the CFL and that players must take responsibility for their actions.

Still, a recent Hamilton Spectator/McMaster University investigation into former CFL players brain health and featured in the Star that found nearly all the subjects involved in a study had significant brain deficits and disease presumably from playing football and receiving concussion injury, produced a “scary stuff” remark from Glassford, and he added that “everybody is scared,” at what could be lurking in former players’ brains. “Am I one of the lucky ones? Who knows? The cards are dealt already,” said Glassford.

Lubo Zizakovic, at 6 foot 7 inches and 270 lbs. was one of the largest men to play defensive line in the CFL. He spent 6 seasons from 1992 to 1996 in the league with Hamilton, Calgary and Ottawa and does not recall any specific serious incident of concussion but attributes that to a change of style caused by a neck injury suffered while playing for Maryland in the NCAA which in turn forced him into a more “finesse” style of play. Still, he has concerns about what many years of knocking heads on the football field will leave him with as he continues to operate a successful business and raise a family, and Zizakovic, 49, does not suffer fools, on the football field and other, lightly.

Regarding the CFL’s statements on the causes of CTE and Commissioner Ambrosie’s Grey Cup week pronouncements on CTE “science” Zizakovic said in an interview that

“Randy is just kicking the can down the road.”  And  regarding the CTE “brain border battle” he sardonically noted “we cannot consider the most qualified CTE people on earth because as you know, they are based in Boston and Boston is not in Canada.”

Leonard Sparks, now 77, was a bruising offensive end who came out of the University of Wyoming and landed in the CFL in 1963 for 7 seasons with the Calgary Stampeders, Toronto Argos, Ottawa Rough Riders and BC Lions.  Through his daughter, Erin Sparks recalled his playing days:

“My coach in training camp in Vancouver for the Lions, Jim Champion, told me he loved the way I tackled but I will hurt myself one day. I remember  one of my concussions in Vancouver when I tried to deke a player and hit the guy in the knees. I tried to get off the ground and reach for the sky but I couldn’t because I was off balance and dizzy. I was taken off the field and played again the next day. 

“My helmet was like a weapon and I would spear guys which I know now was not the right thing to do. It was expected by coaches and trainers and it just became a regular thing…. use your head and helmet like it was a weapon. I had many concussions because of this but like I said, it became a regular and accepted thing, to spear.” 

Ms. Sparks said that her father has many cognitive and physical deficits.

“The worst impairment from the concussions? There are too many…..memory loss, personality changes, loss of independence, watching my Dad disappear, some depression, Dad feeling he is not needed as the man of the house …..the list goes on.”

Ms. Sparks had enrolled her father in a brain study at Krembil but pulled him out before conclusion commenting that the doctors were “cold” and said that her father would not be donating his brain to the CCC.

Finally, a recent McGill University Sport Medicine Clinic study by Dr.J.Scott Delaney of 454 CFL players during the 2015 season regarding anonymous self-reporting of concussion found that many players either did not report their injury or tried to hide it. In fact, in a troubling scenario, the study,  “performed in conjunction within the  CFL league office and the Canadian Football League Players’ Association,” found that only six percent of players  reporting a concussion sought medical attention after the game, fearing repercussions including  that they would be prevented from playing in future games, calling into question the efficacy of current CFL concussion  protocols.

Asked whether some might see the results of the study as a form of blaming the players for not reporting their concussions, or the CFL for coming late to the concussion crisis, Dr. Delaney, who is a sideline observer of concussion protocol for the Montreal Alouettes, said in an interview that “I don’t want to throw the league or the players under the bus,” but rather he said, it was important to note that under the current system of concussion protocol there appears to be issues around the reporting of concussions that may need amending. “I think the league is doing a very good job,” he added.

The Canadian Football League did not respond to multiple e-mailed questions for this story regarding concussion protocols and CTE and the way forward for the league.

–edited by Sheilla Dingus


Editor at Advocacy for Fairness in Sports | Website

Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.

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