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Canada’s League of Denial


May 2, 2018
Terry Ott

When the book and documentary League of Denial appeared in 2013, I wondered where the concussion and brain/disease injury awareness situation sat for the Canadian Football League.

Unlike the National Football League and other interested observers’ slow and reluctant acknowledgement of football concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the CFL has, for the most part, enjoyed a curious detachment from the issue.

In view of this, it’s interesting to note the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s flagship investigative news program, the fifth estate was the first to break  fallow Canuck ground on concussion brain injury well before League of Denial hit the headlines.

Lead writer and host Bob McKeown, formerly with NBC news, and himself a former 70s CFL lineman who attended Yale on a football scholarship produced the groundbreaking “Head Games” segment in November 2008.

Also, Andrew Poole, a writer with bylines in TIME and The New York Times, was one of the few in Canada to take note of the groundbreaking CBC report, an incredulous situation that largely continues to this day.

McKeown featured the 1978 to 1982 Edmonton Eskimos, a record breaking team that appeared in an incredible 9 of 10 consecutive Grey Cups, eventually winning a record 5 in a row before the never again to be duplicated dynasty finally collapsed in 1983.

McKeown played against the Eskimos in the 1973 Grey Cup game in Toronto, when Edmonton began their historic run, a game I attended at the venerable lakefront CNE Stadium, witnessing McKeown and teammates hoist the Grey Cup for the third time in six years.

In addition to Canada’s heroes, Head Games also brought out the struggles of former Pittsburgh Steeler star center Mike Webster, who several years after the broadcast, would die in 2002 at age 50 from a heart attack, to be posthumously diagnosed with CTE following years of erratic behavior.

McKeown also sat down with former CFL commissioner Mark Cohon-who was still commissioner in 2014 when Arland Bruce brought the first lawsuit against the CFL for concussion injury.  Under some semi-confrontational questioning by McKeown, Cohon resembled the proverbial deer in the headlights and stumbled to make coherent answers as well as showing a rather shocking claimed ignorance of previous research done by McGill University that showed that 4 of 5 CFL players did not report concussions to their athletic trainers or doctor.

A decade later Dr. J. Scott Delaney, also of McGill, and a sideline concussion protocol observer for the Montreal Alouettes found basically the same results in another concussion study, Current commissioner Randy Ambrosie has tried to remain quiet on the subject outside a few remarks at last year’s Grey Cup that the “science” between the equivalency of football concussions and CTE is not “clear.” In other words, more of the same.

Eventually NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had to sit before congress answering questions about concussions, but the chance of anything similar taking place in Canada is remote – in the current climate, I’d estimate the chances at less than zero.

There is some question as to how much, if any, the CFL funded any research or “symposium” by Tator. (Tator’s spokesperson told Advocacy for Fairness in Sports that the CFL had never funded any concussion research by Tator, but this 2012 article would seem to indicate a “partnership,” whatever that might indicate.

Around the same time, CFL Alumni executive director Leo Ezerins joined Dr. Tator’s crew and contributed to the rather curiously titled “Absence of CTE” in former CFL professional football players which nonetheless found 3 cases of CTE and one of ALS out of 6 participants yet again, still advised the old “extreme caution” in CTE diagnosis routine.

When Ezerins joined Tator’s entourage in 2012, he made a video, in which he describes the woe from the 3 concussions he says he received while playing in the CFL. Yet when I interviewed him in 2013, he told me he did not know if he had ever received a concussion, enquiring of me soon after, “where are you going with this?” Ezerins also opined to me that some claims of CTE were “psycho-somatic,” which in all seriousness, is patently ridiculous and/or conveniently duplicitous.

In the Ezerins produced video below, Dr. Tator makes an appearance boasting that on the subject of brain research and CTE, “we can cover the spectrum [and] I’m not sure that there is any other, uh, project in the world, that can do that.” Any reasonable individual following this issue may see that as a qualifying reference to the Boston University CTE project that Tator has criticized for “calling a press conference every time they find a case of CTE,” which in reality, is an untrue and unprofessional accusation.

How these rather incredible statements and others like them escape the long noses of most of the Canadian media is surely the stuff worthy of a New Millennium inquisition. Are they waiting for a beloved Canuck sports god like Wayne Gretzky to call BS on the whole thing so they can scurry to him and then get absolution to report on something fishy that was worthy of the catch about 5 years ago. Who knows?

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck is it not a “fowl” case of trying to proclaim a “world” first in CTE research? CTE research that continually downplays the relationship between football concussions and CTE?  The word I get out of the US is that many interested parties think what is going in Canada in regard to CFL CTE “research” is a bad joke and not to be taken seriously, if at all.

Or is the situation in Canada a sort of Dunning-Kruger Effect, a syndrome explained recently by the NYTimes, “The less skilled you are at something, the less likely you are to recognize how unskilled you truly are, and thus you overestimate your abilities. Worse still, because you can’t see your errors, you’ll never know you need to correct.”

As detailed in 2013 Concussion Blog post, Tator did revise some of his CTE findings with a follow up to the “Absence Of” curio, yet it is also noted that Tator continues to be skeptical about the link between football concussions and CTE in an era when the bulk of the evidence would obviously indicate otherwise.

Ezerins and Tator were both named as defendants in the Arland Bruce concussion lawsuit in 2014, now defunct, but both continue today in their rather unique research of CTE, the same study that Erin Sparks pulled her father, Len, a former CFL player with dementia out of due to multiple concerns.

The fact that the Head Games documentary is still the best media report ever done on CTE in the CFL in Canada and was undertaken a decade ago is at best shocking, at worst gross negligence. Hopefully, the fifth estate will produce a Head Games, redux, soon, especially after commissioner Ambrosie’s rather silly science “not clear” comments about CTE late last year that has for a tiny few in the Canadian media, inflamed the situation.

Currently, Dr. Tator remains the Canadian media’s favorite “go-to guy” on concussions and CTE in the CFL, a scenario which some feel is akin to the old saying of the lawyer representing himself, as having an unwise client.

As the usual media suspects go, here is 3downnations trusty Drew Edwards picking up a Canadian Press report in 2017 wherein Tator announces that he has found one-that’s one-case of CTE in a non-concussion subject. Rarely, if ever, does Drew give prominence to the 99.99 percent of CTE case that are football or otherwise sports related.

Former CFL player Phil Colwell, currently suffering from football related brain injury does not have much use for the current state of CTE research in Canada nor its media compatriots and has accordingly signed paperwork to leave his brain to Boston University CTE researchers, bypassing Canada’s “world” renown Dr.Tator.

“I would never leave my brain to Tator because of that ‘extreme caution’ crap,” said Colwell, adding “the Canadian neurologists are living in the past, not the present. Why do they deny such research from BU if not for their own interest?”

Many other players who do not wish to go public at present seethe at the CTE denials in vogue in Canada right now, with some commenting privately that the CFL, some of the media, and some Canadian CTE researchers are trying to “save their own asses” at the expense of legitimate hardship on the part of former brain damaged players who should be given compensation similar to the deal-although in much more modest amounts- worked out with former NFL players, and their league. [Editor’s note – the guys in Canada need to hope that when they do procure a settlement they get one of actually benefits them rather than something that looks good on paper but paints them as liars and frauds, holding up their claims indefinitely.]

Colwell also said that Ezerins, who boasts of assisting former CFL players suffering from bad health or financial outcomes through the CFL Alumni Association, although with relatively tiny stipends, had, despite previously well circulated US media reports on Colwell’s situation, never reached out to Colwell. “Never heard nothing from that guy,” added Colwell, who ironically, as a Toronto Argo, played against Ezerins during the game in 1981 when Colwell was knocked out and received a severe concussion which led to his eventual early retirement.

For a long time, Colwell, who received his knock-out blow covering a kick-off, believed that it was in fact Ezerins, then playing for Winnipeg, who delivered the KO blow. However, a viewing of a game tape recently posted on YouTube would appear bring into question Colwell’s memory and lend credibility to his brain injury claims.

Lubo Zizakovic, at 6.8 and 260lbs, was a standout defensive lineman at the University of Maryland and was later signed by the New York Giants in 1992.  He eventually returned to his native Canada and played 5 seasons in the CFL, a circuit that

Lubo Zizakovic

Lubo Zizakovic

he now nicknames “the Cartoon Football League,” but in no way does he marginalize the fine athletes who toil in it; management and their peripheral is his pet peeve.

Zizakovic is a member of the Toronto Argonaut Alumni Association, Toronto Argonauts Alumni Association and is kept in the loop on CFL matters.  So Zizakovic, a devout Christian, is well aware of the machinations of Leo Ezerins and his gig at the national CFL Alumni, which Lubo believes is redundant and even self-serving.

In an e-mail, Zizakovic, after football a successful businessman, expressed his feelings:

“The guys that need help and are living under bridges and abandoned by their families because they think the guy just turned into an asshole don’t have the administrative wherewithal or municipal address to fill in Leo’s red tape to maybe get a dribble of help. Do you not think if Leo actually helped anyone, he would be shouting it from the tree tops to the world?  Or do you perceive him to be way too humble for that?  No real help gets through.  How would a destitute player even ask for help?  Hitch hike to Leo’s house and grovel?

At Maryland, there was a great running back that was diagnosed with bi-polarism as soon as he got to the Cowboys.  What followed in his life was horrific.  Found by some teammates decades later, he has almost all of his teeth pulled and he had no idea why or how.  The Maryland football family raised money amongst ourselves, got him into his own place and found a dentist who pro-bono replaced his teeth with implants so he could have some dignity.  Helped to get him a job.  His life is far from perfect, but light years ahead of where he was.  That is how you help your fellow wounded warrior.  Tell that to Leo and ask him for his examples of CFLers that his precious CFLAA has helped?  Leo is all sizzle and no steak.  He has no creds to back up anything.  There is no there there.”  

Arland Bruce III, was the first to sue the CFL for concussion injury and was treated shabbily by some in the Canadian media, including that let stand racist religiously intolerant comments about him from readers despite being advised of their derogatory nature. When the Bruce suit was first brought in July 2014, TSN, the CFL’s broadcaster, threw shade on the Bruce action, with lead CFL reporter Dave Naylor openly questioning Bruce’s motives. At one point, Bruce was living in his truck in Vancouver and according to his attorney, was later committed to a psychiatric facility after an incident related to his brain damage.

Andrew Bucholtz, now a reporter for Awful Announcing, was previously the Yahoo! Canada CFL football man with the 55 Yard Line Blog for 6 years.  Andrew was one of the very few in Canada that even attempted to hold the CFL’s feet to the fire over the concussion issue beginning in 2011 when he, among other issues, pointed out that Leo Ezerins had tried to question a concussion study in Hamilton, Ontario. (The local media in Hamilton noted the Leo goings-on, but did not follow up, possibly because in Hamilton, Ezerins is a favorite son, the winner of a long sought Grey Cup with the Tiger-Cats in 1986, and of course it is also Drew Edwards’ Arland Bruce reaction formation territory.)

When the Chicago-based Concussion Blog began investigating the concussion/CTE issue in Canada and the CFL, Bucholtz was only one of two Canadian media outlets-the other, the KW Record, once- that bothered to regularly mention the US reporting in his Blog, which included the first media report of the Arland Bruce concussion lawsuit in July 2014, and that eventually, other Canadian media did mention that it had come out of Chicago.

Bucholtz, who works in the US, consistently linked to the Concussion Blog CFL reporting and yet possibly it did him no good.  Talking out of turn occasionally about the CFL as Bucholtz did is one thing, furthering heretical CFL CTE reporting from the US via Canada is another. Bucholtz was shown the cyber door soon after the Bruce lawsuit although he does not claim a connection. Others, however, perhaps may think there is.

Late last year, Bucholtz, who still follows the CFL, was set to contribute to my assigned Toronto Star story before it was unceremoniously gassed early this year. Here’s what he e-mailed, boldly added:

“It’s disappointing that the commissioner still says ‘there is not conclusive evidence’ about football head injuries and brain disease. That’s not only isn’t true, it’s a weaker stance than the top NFL officials have taken.

The many cases of past CFL players suffering from brain trauma are perhaps even more concerning.  The league has been very quiet on that front for years and years..(and) it’s unfortunate they haven’t been able to find more ways to help former CFL players who are in truly dire straits.  It would be appreciated if the CFL did more, or at least acknowledged the issue more.  Instead, we get a league that’s generally quiet on concussions past and present.”

Mr. Bucholtz curiously declined comment for this story.

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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