The first time I watched Dan Carcillo‘s video from the Player’s Tribune (helpfully linked below, for those who haven’t seen it), I started and stopped it so many times that I had to rewatch it just to get the full message.
Even then, I paused it once or twice to text people, or check my Twitter – just about anything to calm myself down. Get my emotions in check; gain control over myself.
Head injuries are simultaneously more and less frustrating than broken bones or pulled muscles.
On one hand, they’re better, because your good days are really good — most who have suffered a concussion (or a few) can say with complete certainty that days can go by without a single post-concussion symptom. You might go to a music festival, the sun bright as a bonfire, and feel completely fine — no migraine, no sleepiness, no nothing. You may also notice that any hesitancy you’ve developed in your speech goes away with your fourth or fifth cup of coffee, or when you drink; Carcillo mentions a dependency on pain medication, and that’s been reported to make you feel normal again sometimes, too.
While a badly broken leg leaves constant reminders as it heals — you may have a particularly painful set of open scabs from when you fell, and crutches are the single most cumbersome invention known to mankind — a head injury doesn’t have constant control over you. Post-conscussion syndrome isn’t a 24/7 affliction, and — at times — it goes away.
On the other hand, though, the bad days are really, really bad.
Carcillo does a masterful job of bringing his viewers closer to understanding how a bad day can snowball at the drop of a hat; without a direct set of tasks set in front of you and a strong support system, it’s easy to shut down and close up within your own seemingly-broken mind. Migraines aren’t a universal post-concussion symptom, but light sensitivity often is — and the anxiety that comes from knowing a regular nine-to-five won’t tolerate frequent ‘sick days’ because you can’t turn the lights on or string together a train of thoughts without trailing off only makes it worse. People have no idea if you can’t finish your sentence because you’re high, stupid, or ill — and really, who wants to be known for any of those?
You see it in his face, and you can hear it in his voice when he tries to tell the story of his friend Steve Montador — Dan Carcillo isn’t only devastated that he lost a friend, he’s terrified. Montador, prior to his departure from playing professional hockey and his subsequent death, had been a close ally to Carcillo during his toughest moments. If Steve Montador couldn’t stay afloat once he’d left the NHL, how was Carcillo supposed to believe that he’d be strong enough?
He makes a valid assertion regarding ‘life after hockey’.
The active NHL players who sat in on the 2013 CBA negotiations (including Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan, who referred to the process as ‘concessionary bargaining, right from the start’) insisted on the current CBA including the first-ever Defined Benefits Pension Plan, which provides a bit more relief for players post-retirement than when Montador’s career ended due to concussion-related symptoms. The minimum NHL salary until 2021 is $525,000 — and after that season, it goes up to $750,000. If minimum wage increased to accomodate the cost of living at the same rate that NHL contracts will, the number of people living below the poverty line would likely reduce by a fraction (under the assumption, of course, that the number of available jobs didn’t decrease complementary to wage increase).
The money wasn’t what Carcillo was talking about, though.
For many professional athletes — hockey players included — life is spent on the road from the time they’re pre-teens.
NHL hopefuls live with billet families while playing in the major juniors, and even sometimes while in the minors, and their every waking minute is scheduled out for them. Yes, they get summers. Yes, they get holidays, and weekends, and afternoons off — but with an unforgiving practice, game and travel schedule, players are given a direct purpose every day. Stress is easy to work off on the ice — and for those that are injured, it’s easy to work off on a bike or treadmill, too.
Leaving the sport, therefore, is hard enough without those bad days Carcillo describes. Players go from a regimented schedule to unending free time; they often have a specific set of skills that don’t lend themselves to a traditional work setting, and communities often aren’t equipped to help ease the transition from the almost-militant life of competitive sports to… well, ‘life after’.
Post-concussion symptoms have to be pushed through, overcome — and while that’s hard enough when you don’t want to get up in time for a team meeting, it’s even harder when there’s nothing to get up for.
What Carcillo asks of the league isn’t for better financial support after hockey. Although many pro athletes find themselves burning through paychecks with little thought regarding their futures, many others make enough to walk away from the game with a somewhat comfortable nest egg. They may not retire in a mansion — many retire with a car and an apartment — but they also won’t find themselves on the streets.
What he asks for is better emotional support.
As a human body gets older and more fragile, the physical limitations that accompany it are frustrating enough; accelerate them at the speed that many athletes are physically deteriorating as a consequence of the physically demanding training they undergo from childhood on, and that frustration multiplies. Ankle braces and periodic knee rehabs are irritating and often accompanied by varying degrees of pain, and it’s almost shamefully humbling to be restricted to benches, bleachers, and sidelines when your heart still thinks you’re unbreakable.
Then, mix in the insecurities ex-players feel when all they’ve ever known becomes impossible — take the sport they’ve played for hours every day since they were six, and tell them they’re finished. Pile on top of that the bad days that come from head injuries, the mental limitations that come from post-concussion syndrome and even just the anxiety that comes from being left behind, and it’s pretty easy to see why Dan Carcillo is terrified of how quickly any one of his teammates could become Steve Montador.
It’s easy to watch Dan Carcillo play and write him off, jeer at him, or generalize that he’s a terrible human being. Nicknamed ‘The Carbomb’ for an all-too-apparent reason, Carcillo’s a polarizing player because he makes hits that result in the kind of struggles Montador went through — and whether he feels obligated to play according to the team’s preferences or not, plenty dislike him for the way he performs on the ice.
What’s not as easy to do, though, is remember that Dan Carcillo is doing a job — and it’s the only one he’s ever known. It’s not as easy to remember that you don’t have to condone a player’s style to agree with them on personal beliefs and convictions; it’s not as easy to realize that what Carcillo is trying to do is raise awareness for an extremely undervalued social issue within the NHL.
It takes a lot to know that you’re a polarizing public figure and admit it; it takes even more to admit it and still speak up for something that you believe in, knowing that many will write you off just for who you are. It couldn’t have been a walk in the park — as Dan Carcillo — to sit down in front of a camera and talk about your deepest fears and greatest sorrows, knowing that the world was going to see them and judge you for them.
Taking that courage he found to talk about this issue, it might be time to sit down and think about what he said — for every player that gives us an exciting game, it’s worth our while to give them back some peace of mind when they hang up their skates for good.
For now, there aren’t a ton of programs directed at raising post-concussion effect awareness and mental health for athletes, both at the professional and minor level. The Steve Moore Foundation is directed at furthering brain trauma research, though, while the Bell Let’s Talk movement is directed at raising mental health awareness.