Telander: No surprise Bob Probert diagnosis shows CTE
BY RICK TELANDER Columnist March 3, 2011 10:18PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
A few months ago, after Bob Probert died and his family donated his brain to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, I basically guaranteed in a column that researchers would find Probert’s brain to be damaged.
I’m no doctor, but neuropathologist Ann McKee, the director of the BU research team, had shown me slides of traumatized athlete’s brains, with the ugly enzyme tau rampant in places where it should not have been. The overabundance of tau signaled brain decay, the presence of early-onset dementia known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and which is caused only by blows to the head.
And Probert, once voted the toughest man in the NHL, fit the requirements perfectly. He was a head-hunter, a brawler, a huge physical force in a brutal sport in which only the net is soft.
And he had at times in his tormented, drug-and-alcohol sodden life displayed irrational, self-destructive behavior.
On Tuesday the BU research team announced that Probert’s brain tissue did, indeed, contain the disease CTE. Had he lived — Probert died of a heart attack while boating with his family — he would have been condemned to a life of rapidly-faltering memory, sleep disorders, personality changes, confusion, depression and the speeded-up dissolution of his human essence.
In the fall of 1995, after Probert had signed with the Blackhawks, I met with him at a Chicago restaurant. He was out of rehab, and he was doubted by all.
I rolled up a $20 bill and asked him what he thought of that. He chuckled at the cocaine reference. I asked him if he minded if I ordered a shot of tequila, and he said no. When the shot came, I asked him if he wanted any. He said no, again laughing. So I drank it.
Probert acted with resolve
There were two Blackhawks front office people there with us, and the dinner meeting itself had been arranged by them. This was a way for Probert to prove to skeptical and diehard fans alike that he could handle the temptations of hockey life and be productive again.
It was hard for him that night. But not a thousandth as hard as life on the road with the NHL zoo would be. That he acted with resolve is to his credit.
But he did not seem right to me.
I couldn’t put my finger on it then, nor can I now. But something with Probert was just . . . off.
Now I wonder if it was the CTE beginning its ugly infestation.
Scientists have no CTE test yet for a living person; deep brain tissue must be dissected and lab work must be done.
Yet, shockingly, Dr. McKee found signs of CTE in a dead, multisport athlete who was only 18.
What are we to make of all this?
First, the family and friends of Probert should be consoled, or at least amazed by the burden this troubled man was somehow managing to live under.
Second, we as a society better keep looking around and figuring out how to change popular sport in profound ways — most importantly men’s football and hockey, but even concussion-heavy sports like women’s basketball and lacrosse.
The brain needs to be reintroduced as a sacred organ without peer. How can it be that shoe companies put more money into the glorification of our feet than anybody anywhere puts into the exaltation of our frontal lobe?
Boxing, as we know, is beyond hope. That there’s a burgeoning interest in mixed martial arts is only a sign that human cock-fighting, when gussied up with rock music and flashing lights, appeals to our basest selves.
But football and hockey are virtuous, All-American, and, yes, All-Canadian, pastimes.
Millions of our children play these sports. And the concussions and lesser head trauma they receive from bad helmets, bad rules, bad coaching, bad training, bad treatment and bad role models cannot be tolerated now that we know what’s up.
No need for fighting in hockey
Does anybody on this planet really want to be Bob Probert, dead or alive?
How about Marc Savard or Sidney Crosby (if his head doesn’t clear), or any of the shambling, disoriented, still young former NFL players who seem to be lurching into the public square hour by hour?
There is no need for head hits or fighting in pro hockey. None. Ever. The notion that hockey fights are required to ‘‘regulate’’ on-ice behavior means that imbeciles aren’t willing to change the rules so that referees regulate the games, not thugs.
I gag when I read what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in 2007, a stance he has hardly moved from: ‘‘My view on fighting hasn’t changed. We’ve never taken active steps or considered eliminating fighting from the game. I’ve always taken the view that it’s part of the game and that it rises and lowers based on what the game dictates.’’
So it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Probert’s somber and battered face, bearer of the marks of 246 pro hockey fights and God knows how many collisions, was made into a poster and tacked on the bulletin board of every hockey locker room, pee wee to college.
Let young folks take a look, even if elite hockey does nothing.
Better yet, put up posters of a magnified slide of Probert’s ruined brain tissue, ragged and hideous.
Boys would stare at that.