Posted by: mdegeorge | March 7, 2011

Weekly Diagnosis: March 6

March Madness is almost upon us (I think today is Judgement Day or Separation Week or some other ridiculous ESPN moniker). But plenty of other stories have jockeyed their way into the national limelight this week, including enlightening autopsies, some broken expectations at the Combine, and a farewell to a beloved mentor.

‘Probie’s’ brain probe results released

Another name was added to the alarming large list of chronic traumatic encephalitis (CTE) patients this week with confirmation that the late NHL enforcer extraordinare’s brain showed signs of the neurodegenerative disease when the results of a scan were released this week.

Probert, who died of a heart attack at age 45 last summer, became devoted to the cause of researching head injuries in athletes after his career ended and agreed to donate his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University upon his death, though few realized it would be so sudden. Dr. Robert Cantu, the co-director of the center, labeled the degree of CTE shown as not that “severe” as in other cases of boxers or football players that the institute has handled.

Probert’s widow, Dani, has become a major advocate of research into head injuries among athletes, releasing a statement that said: “Having Bob’s name attached to that can show other athletes, and especially the hockey players, that they need to get involved.” She also added that part of the motivation in her and her husband’s advocacy was to increase awareness for the future generations of athletes, which includes the couple’s four sports-playing children.

The former “Bruise Brother” typified the NHL tough guy role in 16 seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. In 935 NHL games, he accumulated 3,300 penalty minutes, including over 200 fighting majors. Probert also had a history of alcohol and cocaine abuse dating from his teen years which hasn’t conclusively been linked to CTE, though it could have other adverse effects on the brain.

But in the fight for meaning in light of the results of the scan, all sides seem to be demurring. Probert is the second former NHLer showing signs of the disease, joining Reggie Fleming. Mrs. Probert was quick to point out in a New York Times interview that, “In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe fighting is what did this to Bob.” Dr. Cantu concurred, saying, “How much is the hockey and how much is the fighting, we don’t really know.”

Instigators like George Parros of the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago’s John Scott don’t think fighting is going anywhere anytime soon. NHL Players Association chief Donald Fehr isn’t ready to act either, while NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is already decrying the results as arising due to “incidental contact” rather than the targeted hits he’s trying to outlaw. Scott’s reaction in particular has that distinct don’t-take-my-job-away bent to it.

If you eliminate fighting, guys are just going to go around hitting people with no regard for what’s going to happen to them. If you take fighting out, there will be guys running people, taking head shots, using their sticks and it’s just going to increase the amount of concussions.

It is early in the research for hockey players, but it seems like players and officials are already digging in a position against change. Changing rules on fighting isn’t something to be taken lightly as it is an institution that separates the game from most other sports. But perhaps more stringent crackdowns on the belligerence and goonery perpetrated by Probert for a decade and a half would be an acceptable starting point.

Jones breaks rank at Combine

I’m not the biggest fan of the NFL combine. I think it’s largely a sham exercise that exists only to justify ESPN putting the awkward marriage that is Todd McShay and Mel Kiper on the air every night from late November through April. The fact that Blaine Gabbert, the number one quarterback in a loaded draft class, can go to the combine and not throw … and still leave the top-rated quarterback without a front office shudder is utterly asinine. It’s not like throwing is a big part of being a quarterback, so no biggie there. And remember, Brady Quinn impressed at the combine. He’s a can’t miss!

With that boulder of salt in mind and out of my system, one of the big winners to come out of the ludicrous media extravaganza/overhyped meat market (hey, I had one more in me!) was former Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones. The consensus second-best wideout on most boards thrilled scouts, posting the third-best 40-yard dash time at his position at 4.39 and the second-longest broad jump in the last 11 years. All this from a physically imposing receiver who isn’t thought to project as a speed guy at the next level.

The workout was enough to vault him up in the mock drafts beyond the 14th pick he had been consistently holding at for the last few months (much to the dismay of the wideout-starved St. Louis Rams).

The only thing tempering the excitement, or perhaps intensifying it, is the revelation that he went through the whole process with a broken bone in his foot. Jones underwent a procedure later in the week to have a screw inserted and faces an eight-week recovery, leaving doubt as to whether or not he’ll be able to workout for teams again prior to the draft.

The combine injury is similar to the one sustained by Michael Crabtree in 2009. Hopefully, Jones’ malady won’t spread to his brain like Crabtree’s did.

A positively sad goodbye

One of the foremost practitioners in the field of sports psychology, Harvey Dorfman, passed away this week at the age of 75, leaving behind a vast array of former major league baseball clients and success stories. His Rolodex includes a bevy of reclamation projects that would make an evangelical church blush.

Dorfman was hired by the Oakland Athletics in the mid-1980s while the field of sports psychology was still a nascent field that had yet to take root in earnest outside the classroom. Dorfman spend almost a decade and a half with the A’s and the Florida Marlins, espousing the virtues of positive thinking and goal-oriented counseling and attending to the oft-neglected minds of athletes. He authored five books, including “The Mental Game of Baseball” with co-author Karl Kuehl, which is a staple in MLB clubhouses and spent the last decade working on the staff of superagent Scott Boras. Boras issued a statement after Dorfman’s passing, sharing praise from one influential player in the game never to wear a uniform to another.

Today hundreds of people in baseball, education and business across the nation have lost a true mentor and friend. Harvey pioneered the introduction of psychology into the mainstream of baseball both on and off the field. His presence will always be felt in the game.

Dorfman’s list of clients is a veritable who’s who of bounceback stars. In Philadelphia alone, he can count Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge, Roy Halladay, and Jamie Moyer as success stories able to extend their careers after devastating setbacks. New York Mets pitcher Mike Pelfrey’s career turnaround and the roller coaster that turned into a solid MLB career for pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel were all powered in part by Dorfman. Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild and former Angels’ pitcher Jim Abbott also revere Dorfman as a mentor.

The thinking in MLB clubhouses when Dorfman started was probably radically different from now (it’s hard to believe much mental preparation was being done while players league-wide were stuffing syringes in their glutes.) As a number of the articles commemorating his life hit on, few new Dorfman’s name, but they were well acquainted with the accomplishments of his protege’s. While most fans won’t know enough to miss him, the players under his tutelage certainly will.

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