Boogaard: A Response

A thoughtful reader, Christopher Robin Zimmerman, writes in to criticize a post in which I said:

…what would surprise me least would be to learn that [NHL “enforcer” Derek] Boogard’s death was a suicide, and that a brain study later uncovers traumatic encephalopathy.

And…

Again, no one knows what happened to Boogaard. Could be an accident, could be natural causes, there are no answers yet. But who would be shocked to find to that this kid is another example of a brain turned to mush through violent sport?

Zimmerman writes:

‘No one knows what happened to Boogaard.’ You say it almost as an afterthought, but it is too soon. Nobody would say with certainty that they know what has happened and yet there is still a frenzied rush in the blogosphere to be the first to presume, assume, place blame, and publish. Such early speculation is both premature and pointless — certainly irresponsible — no matter how well-crafted and well-intentioned the author believes themselves/their prose to be. Unfortunately this is just another example of “journalists” making up their minds and filing their stories and columns publishing their blog posts before having all of the facts…before having ANY of the facts. And for what? What prize is won for being first? I guess there is a belief that there will be a “winner,” the most eyeballs will be scored, granting the best chance to attempt to shape whatever “debate” ensues – whether it’s warranted or not. This is sadness compounding sadness. A man is dead; isn’t that sadness enough?

I note that on Zimmerman’s own site he remarked last week that he was watching the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, so I suspect he is writing as a hockey fan who feels deeply saddened by what happened to Boogaard. I respect what he has to say, though I will put out front here and now that I’m not going to stop making these kinds of posts. For what I consider very good reasons.

Two years ago, I broke the story of the incident in which former wrestler Verne Gagne attacked a weakened elderly man in a nursing home that specialized in the care of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. That man, Helmut Gutmann–a member of my church who I was personally acquainted with–died from his injuries.

I followed that story up with another examining the possibility that Gagne’s condition might have been brought on by the punishment that his brain took over the course of a wrestling career that lasted more than three decades.

That story was purely speculative. Do I regret writing it? Given the conversation it sparked, no. Not in the slightest. My fervent hope is that researchers are given the opportunity to study Verne’s brain, too. And I know from speaking with them that researchers hope the same thing.

I frankly don’t think it is too soon to discuss the possibility that Boogaard’s death is related to traumatic encephalopathy. Because contrary to what Zimmerman contends, we do have some facts on our side, even without yet knowing what was his cause of death.

•  Boogaard’s last game was Dec. 9. He missed more than 50 games last season because of a concussion he suffered after fighting and apparently slamming his head into the sheet of ice in Ottawa.

• It was the 70th fight in the 277 games of Boogaard’s NHL career as “an enforcer.” That equals one fight every four games.

• As John Saunders of ESPN reported, Boogaard had been complaining of recent headaches.

• He and his brother ran a “hockey fighting class” in Sakatchewan, which suggests that the pummeling his brain took also occurred outside of the confines of the game itself.

• His family has asked that researchers in Boston take Boogaard’s brain and study it for signs of traumatic brain injury.

Add in the fact that that the CDC calls suicide the second leading cause of death among 24- to 35-year-olds, and you’ve got the grist for some serious questions, and yes, even speculation. Even about the possibility that this was a suicide. Boogaard was 28.

I did not indicate that I knew what had happened to Boogaard. I made allowances for the fact that something other than brain injury caused by the NHL’s barbaric tolerance for fighting on the ice might have caused it. Maybe, like the jazz great Eric Dolphy, Boogaard died from undiagnosed diabetes. Somehow, I doubt it.

Understandable sensitivities like Zimmerman’s aside, I do not think it is wrong to raise these questions.

The evidence is powerful is that violent sports from boxing to football to professional wrestling and hockey are turning living human brains into masses of toxified tissue that ruin and end the lives of athletes. In the case of hockey, that probably has to do with the permissiveness with which it treats the violent attacks of players against each other that, off the ice, would result in criminal assault charges.

That’s a situation that cries out for scrutiny. And, yes, speculation. Every question ever raised, after all, has been the direct product of speculation.

Again, Christopher, many thanks for your thoughtful feedback.

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3 Comments

  1. A good followup…thanks.

    I think last night I was more angry at Nick Coleman than you, but I was either too chicken to put my comment over there, or I figured there would be no response… or worse, a response that would only aggravate me further. Perhaps to put it in “Internet” terms, I felt less trolled by your piece than I did by his piece, so I ended up commenting here.

    It’s interesting that you mention the Gagne story, because this weekend another pro wrestler’s story had come to my mind: Chris Benoit’s. As you may or may not recall, Benoit, his wife and young child were found dead at their home shortly after Benoit no-showed a major pay-per-view event in June 2007. Over the course of 48 hours, the story developed from “we have no idea what happened” to “double murder/suicide” and WWE had to move from broadcasting Benoit tribute shows around the world to taking steps to make sure they never mentioned his name on television ever again, and they did so in a very public and embarrassing fashion. Fortunately for them, the “it’s only pro wrestling” mentality that still makes up much of the meager coverage afforded the industry by the media meant that the story – and WWE – pretty much escaped without further question. I’m in serious danger of going off on a tangent, so I’ll wrap it up by saying that the reason I even bring this up is that there probably were more than a few folks who probably wish they had held off on what they had “reported” before the gruesome details had come out. Of course, in reality, nobody learned a thing – the next round of stories from the usual suspects contained instant speculation on just what would have caused a man to murder his wife, child and then himself. We still don’t know THAT one, and we will never know, but everyone had their “easy” answers, be they the pro wrestling business, steroids, painkillers, other drugs, concussions, &c.

    In a parallel to the Boogaard story, Benoit’s brain was also donated for the purposes of concussion research. Michael Benoit still wants to know what happened to his son, but sadly I doubt he will ever find that peace.

    That was really a whole lotta words to say “obviously, I don’t want to feel ashamed for liking this thing I like.” (That applies to pro wrestling AND ice hockey, by the way.) You know, I’m not naive and I’m not trying to be in denial, although Friday night I sure wanted to feel denial about a guy who I really enjoyed watching on the ice being dead at 28. I’m also keenly aware of Occam’s razor and have my own unspoken suspicions on how the story will eventually be written as the facts come out. But I don’t feel like I should be publicly connecting any dots yet because I feel like I don’t have enough dots. Obviously, there is no shortage of people who DO feel they have the dots.

    I am passing on the memorial at the X going on right now, but I’m sure I will probably think about Boogaard a few times while watching the Sharks/Canucks playoff game tonight.

    Thanks for the forum (twice).

  2. Hockey, as I’m sure it is clear, is not my game. So I should probably admit to myself that I’d be more sensitive, and probably a bit less of a verbal bulldozer, if this had happened to someone I really admire from one of my sports. Had Carl Yastrzemski died this way in the prime of his career and someone speculated on how it happened, I’d probably have complained that the writer was being too cavalier. So to the extent that I made things more difficult for you during a time of inflamed sensitivity, I am sorry.

    Kevin

  3. “Do I regret writing it? ”

    I am sure that it’s the journalist’s prerogative to write a report on what he feels deserves to be written. It’s their freedom and all should accept it.

    However, when it attacks the very personal feelings of a person, then it may be the case of crossing the line.

    I am sure Kevin has not done that and his thoughtful response explains it more than adequately.

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