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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Mourning Adam Johnson: Why is safety in professional sports not taken seriously?

Rachel Choi
Illustration by Rachel Choi.

Opinions expressed in Beacon Op-Eds are not necessarily shared by the entire staff. It is the responsibility of Opinion editors to elevate each individual’s unique voice. 

There is a vague idea about sports we deem dangerous. They’re the ones that exist outside of our comfort zones, labeled as only for thrill-seekers, sports that test the limits of human capability—like skydiving, bull riding, or professional slapping—all activities that toe the line between sport and experience. 

The sports that we don’t consider when faced with questions like this are the ones that we are familiar with: sports popular in America, like football, soccer, baseball, and hockey. But what does dangerous even mean in the context of sports? How is jumping from a plane with a parachute any more dangerous than standing in front of a puck hurtling towards someone at a hundred miles per hour, all the while with actual blades on their feet? 

However, these dangers are supposed to be mitigated, if not entirely eliminated, by safety precautions. And while helmets, shin pads, mouth guards, and resources like team doctors and physiotherapists all exist, the reality is these precautions simply aren’t enough. Profit and success are being valued above players’ safety, and too often we hear of career-ending injuries, brain trauma, or in the worst cases, even death. 

On Oct. 28th of this year, Adam Johnson, a 29-year-old player for the Nottingham Panthers in Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League, passed away during a game against the Sheffield Steelers after a skate blade came into contact with his neck. The incredibly unfortunate situation brought to light many important conversations about the state of player safety in professional hockey.

Realistically, these conversations should have happened earlier, It should not take a player dying for sports leagues to this seriously. Near-misses happen quite literally all the time. In fact, only three days before Adam Johnson’s death on Oct. 25th, Bruins player Jakub Lauko took a skate to the eye

One solution that has been floating around is neck guards. It seems obvious that the neck should be protected in hockey when it is one of the most delicate parts on the body, especially around an open blade. Neck guards do exist, and were already mandatory in various major junior hockey leagues such as the OHL and the QMJHL after goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres Clint Malarchuk suffered a similar situation in 1989. 

While Malarchuk did have a skate blade come into contact with his neck in a very similar way to Johnson, he fortunately was able to make it to the hospital in time to receive 300 stitches and was back on the ice ten days later. After this incident, most NHL goaltenders choose to wear neck guards—but they are not mandatory, despite the incredibly vulnerable state the neck is in when guarding a goal. 

Adam Johnson briefly played for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, as well as their affiliate AHL team the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The Pittsburgh Penguins were the first team in the league to respond in a major way to this tragedy, and have now mandated both their AHL affiliate team and their ECHL affiliate team, the Wheeling Nailers, to wear neck guards. Neck guards cannot be made mandatory for the Pittsburgh Penguins because there has to be a league-wide consensus and mandate for any decisions like this in the NHL. 

Obviously, the NHL should make neck guards mandatory. Adam Johnson and Clint Malarchuck are not the only players who have ever had skates come into contact with their necks, and in a sport as violent as hockey, it is inevitable that these situations will arise.

However, the NHL has a history of not implementing necessary safety measures. For example, helmet visors were only made mandatory for new incoming players in the 2013-2014 season when they were invented all the way back in 1974 after junior hockey player for the Toronto Marlboros, Greg Neeld, lost his left eye after contact with a high stick. Safety measures like a way to protect the neck and eyes just seem entirely obvious, yet it takes so much to get them enforced. 

The NHL takes its reputation as a rough “man’s” league too seriously. Real men don’t need girly safety measures. Real men take a puck to the face and don’t cry. Real men don’t talk out their problems; they fight them out. The NHL is one of the only leagues that fighting is still legal in, despite numerous studies showing that fighting in hockey puts players at high risk for severe concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated head trauma. The condition causes the brain to degenerate, resulting in potential memory loss, impaired judgment, suicidal-ideations, and progressive dementia.

Is the NHL really so desperate to stand out from minor leagues—as well as in the NCAA and European leagues—that it cares more about its reputation more than the safety of their players?

The NHL isn’t the only league that has a safety problem, and hockey is obviously not the only dangerous sport. In fact, in a study conducted by the Boston University CTE Center, 345 out of the 376 former NFL (American Football) players they studied had CTE. Just like with hockey, there is an inherent danger to playing the game, but it doesn’t mean over 90 percent of all players should be condemned to CTE.

The NFL is notorious for weak policies on head trauma. It seems as though every week another investigation is happening into another player clearing concussion protocol too early, resulting  in the even greater danger of re-injury and the repeated head trauma that leads to the development of CTE.

Chris Nowinski, an advocate for increased awareness of concussions and CTE among former athletes, said that “The NFL for the last 15 years has been trying to minimize the role of on-field signs of a concussion, so that they would retain flexibility in returning someone to play if they seem cognitively sound enough in the locker room to go back into the game.” 

This mindset clearly demonstrates how little the NFL cares about player health and safety, and how much teams prioritize winning over having healthy players.

CTE and concussions are the only risks faced—players like Damar Hamlin, a safety for the Buffalo Bills who went into cardiac arrest on field during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals in January. His near-fatal collapse was caused by commotio cordis, a cardiac arrest caused by a blow to the chest. For this event to occur the football had to hit Hamlin’s chest with enough force to make contact with the chest wall in a way to trigger an arrhythmia, and irregular heartbeat. 

The risk of something like this happening is always present, but should the protective padding players wear on their shoulders and chest not work to prevent something like this? What is the padding even for if it does not stop the force of significant blows against the chest enough to prevent an actual heart attack? Leagues like the NFL need to invest in protective gear that does not just make players feel safe, but actually protects players. 

How much is playing one game for their team worth for a football player, or for a hockey player? As much as it may be worth, it should not be worth risking irreparable brain trauma that will impact their health and mental health for the rest of their lives, and it most definitely should not be worth their life.

All athletes deserve to not only play the sports they love, but do their jobs in the career they’ve chosen without having their lives at risk. Adam Johnson deserves better than for his death to be treated like a freak accident; these things happen all the time, and we cannot keep pretending that they are not preventable.

Rest in Peace, Adam Johnson. 

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About the Contributor
Ella Duggan
Ella Duggan, Opinion Co-Editor

Ella Duggan (she/her) is a sophomore communication studies major from Wellington, New Zealand, with minors in public relations and business studies. Outside of the Beacon, she is assistant music director for the Emerson Acapellics, an avid reader of romance novels, and loves hockey - Go Canucks!


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