‘We are go­ing to rely on the sci­ence’

CFL com­mish won’t link con­cus­sions to long-term brain con­di­tions as sci­ence is ‘not con­clu­sive’

The Barrie Examiner - - SPORTS - SCOTT STIN­SON CFL com­mis­sioner Randy Am­brosie talks about con­cus­sions as he re­sponds to a ques­tion dur­ing his state of the league ad­dress Fri­day in Ot­tawa.

OT­TAWA — Randy Am­brosie could only punt on the con­cus­sion ques­tions for so long.

When he was in­stalled as CFL com­mis­sioner in July, the former line­man said that he was no doc­tor and no sci­en­tist, so he didn’t want to wade into the de­bate about the risks as­so­ci­ated with foot­ball and brain dis­ease.

But he’s been in the job for five months now, and he’s talked to some of those doc­tors and sci­en­tists, and so now Am­brosie is will­ing to of­fer some thoughts on the mat­ter. It turns out the new guy, on this par­tic­u­lar is­sue, is a lot like the old guy.

Speak­ing at the com­mis­sioner’s Grey Cup week news con­fer­ence on Fri­day morn­ing, Am­brosie said he wanted to take a minute to ad­dress the “ele­phant in the room.” He said the CFL un­der­stands that con­cus­sions are trau­matic brain in­juries, and that se­ri­ous harm can de­velop if they are not prop­erly treated.

But on the ques­tions of whether such re­peated brain trauma leads to con­di­tions like de­men­tia and chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy (CTE), Am­brosie made a point of say­ing “the cause and ef­fect is un­clear.” He said “we are go­ing to rely on the sci­ence” and added that “the sci­ence is not con­clu­sive.”

“All that tells us is that we have to keep work­ing,” Am­brosie said. “There is so much more that we don’t know than we know.”

For all of his at­tempts to couch this is­sue in cautious lan­guage, and for all Am­brosie did to em­pha­size that he takes the sub­ject of foot­ball and brain health se­ri­ously, there is a sim­ple take­away from all that talk: CFL com­mis­sioner de­nies link be­tween foot­ball and CTE, the head­lines will say.

And that will be a fair as­sess­ment of the sit­u­a­tion. And Am­brosie will still be tech­ni­cally cor­rect.

Even though NFL of­fi­cials con­ceded un­der Se­nate ques­tion­ing last year that a link be­tween foot­ball and brain dis­ease ex­ists, and many high-pro­file ad­vo­cates for former play­ers in­sist that the link is un­de­ni­able given the re­peated stud­ies that show ev­i­dence of CTE in an over­whelm­ing num­ber of brains do­nated by former foot­ball play­ers, Am­brosie can fall back on say­ing the sci­ence is in­con­clu­sive. He ref­er­enced the Ber­lin con­sen­sus, which was a pa­per de­vel­op­ment by a group of world-lead­ing sci­en­tists who meet an­nu­ally to ex­change re­search and gen­er­ally up­date each other on de­vel­op­ments re­lated to con­cus­sion and sport. It says the fol­low­ing: “a cause-and-ef­fect re­la­tion­ship has not yet been demon­strated be­tween CTE and (sport-re­lated con­cus­sions) or ex­po­sure to con­tact sports.” Also: “the no­tion that re­peated con­cus­sion or sub­con­cus­sive im­pacts cause CTE re­mains un­known.”

The reader will note that there is noth­ing equiv­o­cal about those state­ments. Am­brosie, in re­fus­ing to con­firm that the link ex­ists, is only echo­ing what the sci­en­tists them­selves are cur­rently say­ing, even if their mo­ti­va­tions for say­ing so are en­tirely dif­fer­ent. The doc­tors are be­ing sci­en­tif­i­cally cautious, not­ing the lim­i­ta­tions on the cur­rent re­search that are due to CTE only be­ing de­tected post­mortem. We don’t have a con­trol group, we don’t have blinded tri­als, we don’t have many of the el­e­ments that sci­en­tists want be­fore they make strong cause-and-ef­fect as­so­ci­a­tions.

Am­brosie, mean­while, is be­ing cautious be­cause the fu­ture of the league is at stake. The NFL set­tled its law­suits with former play­ers; the prospect of a class-ac­tion from former CFL play­ers looms over the league’s much more mod­est fi­nances. As long as the sci­ence re­mains a lit­tle fuzzy, the CFL can give its lawyers some­thing to work with.

But there is a big dif­fer­ence be­tween some­thing be­ing legally and sci­en­tif­i­cally es­tab­lished and some­thing be­ing sen­si­bly known. We are long past the point where any­one should hon­estly ques­tion whether foot­ball play­ers are at el­e­vated risk of de­vel­op­ing brain dis­ease. Of course they are. How much of a risk? Not sure. Might there be other con­tribut­ing fac­tors that would put some, but not all, foot­ball play­ers at se­ri­ous risk? Quite pos­si­bly. But talk to any of those neu­rol­o­gists who take part in things like the Ber­lin con­fer­ence, and they will say that while there are many un­knowns with CTE, there is near cer­tainty that crash­ing one’s head into a op­po­nent at high speed has a neg­a­tive im­pact on the health of the brain. Foot­ball is far from be­ing the only sport or ac­tiv­ity that brings with it an el­e­vated risk of brain trauma, that doesn’t mean the risk is not there.

Am­brosie, now that he is speak­ing about the is­sue, does not speak of it ca­su­ally. When it was sug­gested on Fri­day that his fram­ing of con­cus­sion sci­ence seemed to be tak­ing a very foot­ball-pos­i­tive view, he re­sponded that “I prom­ise you were are look­ing at both sides of the data.” And he vows that he will con­tinue to let the sci­ence lead him.

Fol­low­ing the path set by sci­ence is a good plan for a new com­mis­sioner. He just might not like where it leads him.

That ele­phant in the room? It’s still there. sstin­son@post­media.com

ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

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