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NHL Concussion Emails More Embarrassing Than Incriminating

A U.S. federal court in Minnesota, as part of an ongoing lawsuit over concussions in the NHL, unsealed a mountain of emails from and among league executives. There is a lot of information contained in the emails –not surprisingly, it’s not all flattering. What is surprising, however, is the raw, sometimes cavalier, manner in which league executives discussed head injuries and related issues.

At the NHL All Star game earlier this year, when asked about the impending release of the emails, Gary Bettman said:

I think that the selective release leaking of documents out of context may cause some people to scratch their head, a couple of other people maybe to, for a brief moment, be a little embarrassed about salty language or the like, but I’m very comfortable with our record. I think, in terms of us running our business on an ongoing basis and the fact that we have a league to run, I’d prefer these things not be public. They’ll be a distraction at best. But I don’t think they impact the merits of the case.

Reading that response from Bettman, one would think that the Commissioner of the NHL would have made sure that any of the electronically documented discussions about concussions and head injuries would reflect the possibility – indeed the likeliness – that those discussions would become discoverable and public in the event of any lawsuit, especially considering the attention that had already come to the topic as a result of studies, congressional hearings, and eventual lawsuits surrounding pro football.

That clearly was not the case.

You can read many of the emails here and here.

While there is no smoking gun in these emails, no overt effort to hide the truth, to suppress evidence linking head trauma to long-term health problems, there is a surprisingly raw — and sometimes even cavalier — discussion about the issue.  It is clear that no one, save maybe the ever cagey Gary Bettman, was giving even one ounce of thought about how the emails might look to a judge or jury or to the public at large in the future.

Maybe most tellingly, these back and forth emails revealed an underlying tension between player safety and hockey tradition. Interestingly, former Player Safety Chief Brendan Shanahan, now an executive with the Toronto Maple Leafs, was the leading voice within the NHL to actually make the changes necessary to protect players — “hockey tradition” be damned. It’s interesting because Shanahan, unlike many others in the NHL executive ranks, actually played the game.

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