Saturday, 11 February 2012

An Open Letter to Gary Bettman

Last week an organization known as League of Fans sent an open letter to Gary Bettman calling for a ban on fighting in hockey.  League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to encourage social & civic responsibility in sports industry & culture.   You can visit their website here.  After a conversation with Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans, I agreed to repost the letter on my site and hopefully give them some additional visibility.  

The letter is available below.   The League of Fans organization has been both praised and attacked in the press over this communication sent to the NHL on February 6th.  The support has primarily been based on the central point made in the letter; that the NHL cannot show concern for players on one hand while allowing an activity where two combatants pound each other in the head.  The attacks have been numerous, from telling Nader not to stick his nose into a sport he doesn't understand and that some of the players named were not injured in fights.   If you read the letter carefully you can see that the message is about concussions, that they are a serious issue to be addressed and continuing to allow fighting, that contributes to the head trauma suffered by players, should be stopped.   One concussion is too many and eliminating fighting will make an impact on the game in this area. 

Note: League of Fans on their website posted a correction regarding the statement about the OHL banning hockey.  Currently the OHL has only banned staged fights but has not implemented any additional penalties or suspensions.

An Open Letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman: It’s Time to Ban Fighting

By League of Fans

February 6, 2012

Dear Mr. Bettman:

It’s time to act.  The National Hockey League must take immediate steps to ban fighting and outlaw all blows to the head.  And you, Mr. Bettman, as league commissioner, must lead the way.

Fighting in hockey can no longer be a long-debated issue pitting those who find it barbaric and unsportsmanlike and those who argue that it’s an integral part of the fabric of the game.  The growing mound of research on sports concussions and brain injuries has taken the fighting issue to an entirely different level.  We’re talking about short-and-long-term damage to the brain, the very foundation of who we are as people.

Commissioner Bettman, it’s very possible that concussions and degenerative brain disease caused by blows to the head — such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — will be the biggest issue in sports in the coming decade.  Continuing to downplay what we know about sports-based brain injuries, while simultaneously supporting fighting as an elemental aspect of the NHL game, is simply irresponsible.

You are right on one point: science has yet to provide us with all the answers when it comes to head trauma and concussions.  But we do know that concussions are a big problem and we all intuitively know that a fist swung against a skull at a high rate of speed is not good for the brain inside that skull.

Repeated head trauma has shortened the careers of Pat LaFontaine, Eric Lindros, and Keith Primeau.  Currently, concussions are threatening the careers of Pittsburgh Penguins’ superstar Sidney Crosby and the Philadelphia Flyers’ Chris Pronger.  Three enforcers, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, whose primary job was to protect teammates by throwing fists at the heads of opponents, have died in the past year.  It’s certainly possible the brain trauma they received on the ice from their fellow combatants played a significant role in their deaths.

Your league has created a department of player safety.  That’s well and good.   But a quick question:  How can you continue to allow fighting, in which the primary target is the head of your opponent, and seriously make the argument that you’re doing all you can to make player safety a priority?

You don’t have to be a pioneer in this area Mr. Bettman.  The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) already bans fighting and all blows to the head.  So does the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the NCAA, and other hockey organizations.  The Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center Ice Hockey Summit recommended prohibiting fighting and all contact to the head at every level of the game, including theNHL, a little more than a year ago.

While there are certainly many potential rule changes that need to be carefully examined to make sure they result in a safer game, banning fighting isn’t one of them.  It’s clear fighting is not a safe policy.

Mr. Bettman, you’re the leader of the most influential hockey organization in the world.  As such, you have the responsibility to make hockey as safe as possible for the players in theNHL.  You also have the moral responsibility to be a good sports citizen and do what you can to make hockey all the way down to the youth level as safe as possible.  There are nearly 1 million youth hockey players in theUnited StatesandCanada.  Like it or not, the actions you take — or don’t take — impact these young hockey players, either positively or negatively.

According to an analysis of hockey-related concussions written by Dr. Syd Johnson of Dalhousie University, and published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last year, one study found that up to 25% of all players in junior hockey leagues sustain concussions in any given season.

“The way hockey is played by the professionals is imitated in junior hockey,” wrote Johnson in the journal article.  “This creates a vicious cycle in which young athletes learn to play in a way that inevitably causes injury and in turn influences the next generation of players.  It’s time to break that cycle and teach youths to play in a way that emphasizes skill and protects their brains, so they’ll be prepared to do the same thing when they grow up.”

Mr. Bettman, your position as commissioner of theNHLdemands that you confront this issue head on and heed the call for policy change when it comes to fighting.  There isn’t a single thing you can do that will communicate your seriousness about protecting our hockey players’ brains – at all levels — than immediately banning fighting and all blows to the head in theNHL.

On behalf of hockey players everywhere – and their families — here’s hoping you have the strength and courage to take this decisive step.


Ralph Nader, Founder, League of Fans
Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


  1. Sounds like you're a fan of figure skating

    1. That is the popular response of the pro-fighting group, along with "I guess you never played hockey". Well I don't enjoy figure skating and I have been watching and playing hockey for almost 5 decades.

      I'm a fan of fast paced, hard-hitting hockey. Where one team intimidates another team through relentless fore-checking, speed and skilled play. I'm not a fan of fighting after a clean body check or staged bouts within seconds of a puck drop or goons who play a few minutes a game go after another player in retaliation for something that happend weeks, months or years ago.

    2. Maybe you should search out leagues that match your preferences vice trying to change the NHL?

      If you were a fan for 5 decades, how could you ever support the league during the heyday of the "Goon", bench clearing brawls, etc?

    3. The NHL is professional hockey, so I'm going to watch despite my opinion that fighting is not part of the game.

      The heyday of the goon was when I came to the opinion that fighting was ruining the game. During that time exciting hockey was regularly interrupted with fights and I wondered why the NHL continued to allow it when other sports were much stricter. But I love the game, both playing and watching

  2. Dave, you're in overwhelming minority on this one. Read the poll in Nader's open letter. 8 in 10 agree... fighting should not be banned. I think that number would be even higher if it were asked of HOCKEY FANS and not the general public.

  3. You have to be careful when referencing polls as they seem to be specific to the site that is carrying a story about banning fighting. Not sure where your poll was, but other surveys don't show the same results. Sports Illustrated ran a survey in late January and approx 35% wanted to see fighting banned. ran two stories in the past few months, one last October and another in January and both of those showed over 70% support for eliminating fighting.

    I will be the first to agree that change, or no change, will depend on a survey of the NHL players themselves. As long as the NHLPA doesn't push for a ban on fighting, or resists any change, then there won't be any push by NHL execs (who publically appear to be in favor of fighting).