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Bettman Clears the Barr

May 2, 2019
Derek Helling

A tale of two capitol cities transpired on the North American continent on Wednesday, May 1. May Day 2019 was regaled in both Washington, D.C. and Ottawa with Congressional and Parliamentary committees holding hearings that centered on the testimony of two controversial figures: US Attorney General William Barr and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

While Barr responded to lines of questioning from members of the US Senate Judiciary Committee, Bettman participated in similar proceedings with the Canadian Parliamentary Subcommittee on Concussions in Sports. The result of Bettman’s testimony was altogether expected and exceeded Barr’s efforts to spread disinformation.

The highlights of Bettman’s testimony came in his response to questions about the league’s beliefs and policies regarding head trauma. Bettman restated the league’s scientifically backward, self-serving stance that there is no conclusive link between repeated head trauma and the development of the neurological disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Bettman understandably failed to cite any actual medical research to support his claim, most likely because none exists.

Bettman was dismissive of notions that the NHL’s brand of hockey could be made safer for players by rule changes. When the notion of banning all hits to the head was voiced to him, Bettman said that was an impossibility. His rationale was that inadvertent head contact is unavoidable and in order to remove all possible hits to the head, all contact between players would have to be banned from the game. On the subject of fighting, Bettman downplayed the frequency of instances of fighting in the NHL and stated that it was necessary for players to police their own conduct on the ice.

Those responses from Bettman were the epitome of toeing the company line. Bettman is employed by the owners of the NHL’s 31 franchises and he has served their interests well during his tenure by increasing the profitability of the league at the cost of the health and safety of its players. There was nothing new or shocking in his responses. What proved most egregious for anyone watching Bettman’s testimony was Bettman’s arguments for how the NHL has been “proactive” on the subject of player safety and care for head injuries.

Bettman brought up the fact that the NHL was the first of the four major professional sports leagues in Canada and the United States to implement baseline testing for concussions. Bettman also reminded committee members that the league employs concussion spotters at each game who have the authority to remove a player from action. Finally, Bettman stated that much of the onus for proper treatment of head injuries lies on the players themselves.

As is often the case with distortions of the truth, Bettman neglected to include a few facts about his selling points. The baseline testing that Bettman trumpeted to MPs is a written exam that most primary-school-aged children could pass. It’s technically true that much of the responsibility for determining the extent of neurological damage and the need for treatment of head injuries lies on the victim of such an injury being honest about her/his symptoms, but there are two facets of the situation for NHL players that complicate that situation.

The first is that many players will feel pressure to return to play as quickly as possible, perhaps before they are actually recovered from a head injury. Whether it be simple love of the game, the desire to not lose a roster spot or a feeling they are letting their teammates down, the motivation to lie about symptoms to be cleared can be strong.

Secondly, the physicians attending to the players are almost always employed by the teams. That creates a natural conflict of interest when it comes to holding players out, as the teams pay these physicians to help keep the players on the ice.

Bettman’s claim about concussion spotters is the most questionable. The league has been completely secretive about who these spotters are, what qualifications and/or training they may have and the procedure for removing a player from a game. Because of the lack of transparency the program’s credibility is in doubt. When asked about this issue by TSN’s Rick Westhead in a media scrum after his testimony Wednesday, Bettman simply ignored Westhead’s question.

May Day 2019 was an unprecedented opportunity for people in North America to behold two important figures appear before two governmental bodies and try their best to sell their disinformation. While Barr certainly made his own case for having his concocted narrative given preference as the most ludicrous of the day, Bettman’s thinly-veiled lack of concern for player safety, science, and transparency proved his ability to pander to his bosses in the face of scrutiny makes him worthy of the charlatan’s Hall of Fame.

Freelance journalist

Derek Helling is a journalist out of Chicago. Illinois, who covers the intersections of entertainment and sports with business, law, media and technology. He publishes a newsletter, "The Ninth Circle of Helling," that focuses on labor issues in North American sport.

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