Is the media to blame for the brain injuries of hockey players?

Are media reports partly to blame for encouraging violent behavior among ice hockey players that leads to traumatic brain injuries? Canadian researchers say yes.
(Just Tang/ The Canadian Press)

Why is hockey such a violent and dangerous sport? Medical researchers from Canada have an answer: Blame the media.

“Media reports of an issue such as TBI in sport can contribute to an altered culture,” they write in a study published online Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.


TBI stands for traumatic brain injury, and it’s become a major public health concern in recent years. It happens when sudden trauma causes the head to hit an object and damages the brain. A concussion is an example of TBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains. (TBI can also be the result of an object, such as a bullet, penetrating the skull, but that’s not much of an issue in hockey.)

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, people who suffer TBI can have problems with thinking, memory and reasoning; trouble processing sights, sounds and other sensory input; and experience personality changes, depression, aggression and other behavioral changes. In more extreme cases, patients can wind up in a stupor or even a vegetative state.

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Ice hockey -- along with other contact sports such as football -- poses a particularly high risk of TBI, especially because players are prone to fighting; when they do, they may well find their heads slammed against a hard surface such as the ice or the Plexiglas wall.

Researchers from the Injury Prevention Research Office and the Division of Neurosurgery at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto wondered whether the media was helping to encourage the type of aggressive play that makes TBI more likely. “Understanding the media portrayal of TBI in ice hockey is important for evaluating whether the clinical severity of these injuries is being appropriately communicated,” they wrote.

To find out, they used computers to scan newspaper articles about hockey in four cities with teams that play in the National Hockey League. The analysis included stories written from 1985 to June 15, 2011, in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Vancouver Sun and the Toronto Star.

The researchers used computers to identify several themes among the stories, which were verified and refined by humans. The analysis turned up some interesting patterns:

* Both American and Canadian papers left the impression that violence and TBIs are just part of the game of hockey, a risk that can’t be avoided.

* American newspapers used to report on TBI only when it affected star players; in more recent reports, they have highlighted the issue even when the injured players were journeyman.

* Sports sections in both countries used to describe protective gear as a way to keep players safe; now they see protective equipment as part of the problem because it makes players feel invulnerable, prompting them to take bigger risks.

* Canadian newspapers have long blamed the NHL for failing to enforce rules intended to keep players safe. Their American counterparts have begun calling on the league to strengthen rules intended to prevent TBI. The study authors point out that both takes are at odds with the idea that fights are integral to the game.

* Recent reports in the American papers have emphasized the need to get violent play out of youth hockey.

* Canadian papers have been making the case that hockey doesn’t need fights to be exciting to fans. As the Toronto Star put it in 2010, “Canadians were just treated to some amazing hockey at the Olympics and nowhere was fighting or head-hunting seen. The game can survive and thrive without it.”

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Why does any of this matter? Because newspapers influence their communities, the researchers say -- just look at how media reports during the SARS crisis prompted many people to change their behavior and avoid places experiencing outbreaks. (They also cite the coverage of pop singer Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis, which sparked a 40% increase in mammogram bookings in Australia.)

In the case of ice hockey, they write, “It is likely that the reporting on TBI that we have documented is also a likely factor that contributes to a culture that normalizes aggressive and violent behavior.”

You can read the study online here.

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