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It's Time for the Doctors to Weigh in on Hockey Fighting

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The ongoing debate about whether or not fighting should be part of hockey often seems to just go in circles. No doubt there's plenty of passion on the issue. Both the fighting advocates -- who contend fighting is a necessary, self-policing, aspect of the game -- and fighting antagonists -- who believe fighting in sports is barbaric and has no place in hockey -- intensely defend their positions. Emotion rules the day.

So, in thinking about this issue, and the emotional tension surrounding it, I thought a new approach might be to let medical doctors share their perspectives on the issue. So, to that end, here we go ...

Dr. Michael J. Stuart, is an orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and chief medical officer for USA Hockey.

"If we truly want to make every effort to reduce the risk of concussion in the sport of ice hockey, we should eliminate fighting," says Stuart. "There's no doubt about that."

Dr. Charles H. Tator, a neurosurgeon and researcher at Toronto Western Hospital who directs programs to reduce head and spinal-cord injuries in sports, concurs.

"We in science can dot the line between blows to the head, brain degeneration and all of these other issues," according to Tator. "So, in my view, it's time for the leagues to acknowledge this serious issue and take steps to reduce blows to the brain."

Those steps, he said, include "getting fighting out of the game."

"I think it [fighting] should be 100 percent banned," says Dr. Ricardo Komotar, assistant professor of clinical neurology surgery at the University of Miami School of Medicine. "It's clearly unnecessary violence. Fighting is something you can obviously eliminate immediately.

"When you're talking about eliminating head blows in football, you're kind of limited on what you can do without completely changing the sport. Fighting in hockey seems like something that you could eliminate without changing the sport at all. You could make a big change, I think, without really altering the fundamentals of the game."

Dr. Robert Cantu is co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. He believes that, ultimately, the NHL will be compelled to do away with fighting.

"In my opinion, they're just turning their eyes away from a problem they don't want to address right now," says Cantu. "Eventually, they'll address it ... The sheer volume of cases (supporting a link between blows to the head and chronic brain disease) I think is going to just overwhelm anybody that wants to be in denial about the existence of this problem."

Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto who is involved in efforts to reduce sports injuries, criticizes the N.H.L. for saying it needs more data.

"We heard this about 40 years ago with cigarette smoking," Cusimano said. "Sure, there can be more evidence, but there's some evidence out there that fighting is clearly a cause of brain injuries. What's the threshold of evidence that Gary Bettman needs to see this?"

Dr. Rajendra Kale is a neurologist and Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ). He wrote an editorial last year saying it's time to stop the violence and play hockey.

"Supporters of fighting argue that it has always been integral to hockey," wrote Kale. "This brutal tradition should be given up now that research has shown that repeated head trauma can cause severe progressive brain damage."

In order to make some progress on this issue, maybe it's time to move beyond discussions about whether or not fighting is good for the game. Let's take the human egos out of this debate -- on both sides -- and listen to the medical professionals who represent the silent human brains inside the heads of the players skating around on the ice.

Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.

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