Informed Consent Isn’t Just for Academics

 

Brooks Laich of the Washington Captials says he would like to stop having people babysit him.

There has been a lot of talk these last few weeks regarding head injuries and fighting in the NHL. Some people are talking about head hits and what the NHL is doing to prevent them. Some people are talking about concussions and the best way to treat them. Others are talking about the cognitive dissonance shown by those in a league that, while claiming to be “cracking down on headshots,” still allows bare-knuckle fighting within the rules of the game. All are valid discussions, and all are a long way from being resolved, one way or the other.

With all of these discussions, what has interested me is the most is that very little has been heard from the men who actually PLAY the game at its highest level. Where do they weigh in on these subjects? While the media has been up in arms with the latest round of “we need to ban fighting in the NHL” hoopla, the players have been largely silent on the matter. That is, they had been, up until this past Friday (Oct 14). Then, following a game between Pittsburgh and Washington (in which the already belaboured debate surrounding the Asham-Beagle fight began) Brooks Laich, a member of the Washington Capitals (and coincidentally, also the team’s NHLPA rep) was quoted as saying the following (via Chuk Gormley of CSN Washington)

I really don’t care about that awareness crap. To be honest, I’m sick of hearing all this talk about concussions and about the quiet room. This is what we love to do. Guys love to play, they love to compete, they want to be on the ice. How do you take that away from someone? We accept that there’s going to be dangers when we play this game. We know that every time we get dressed. I don’t know, sometimes it just feels like we’re being babysat a little too much. We’re grown men and we should have a say in what we want to do.

At the time, Laich was referring to the NHL’s concussion protocols that were introduced last year in an attempt to prevent players from reinjuring (or further injuring) themselves after sustaining a head injury. That said, what struck me about this statement wasn’t Laich’s stance on the concussion protocols, but rather his attitude toward the risks that he and every player in the NHL assumes when stepping on the ice. Basically he was saying “I’m a grown man. I know there are risks involved in what I do. But I’m making a conscious choice in taking those risks. The consequences are my responsibility.” In essence he was claiming that he and every player who laces up skates in the NHL gives their informed consent to take certain risks with their health when they step on the ice.

One part of me wholeheartedly agrees with Laich. He’s a grown man and he openly acknowledges and accepts that there are risks (some of them serious) associated with what he does for a living. Besides, professional hockey players are not the only professionals in this world who take risks with their health (both in the short- and long-term) in the execution of their jobs. Coal miners risk cave-ins and black lung. Fisherman risk drowning. Lumberjacks risk disfigurement and death from falling trees and heavy machinery. This past weekend we even saw the worst case scenario unfold during the Vegas 300 Indy race when Dan Wheldon was tragically killed in a mid-race crash. All of these individuals know the risks of their respective professions, and still choose to take part. Some do it for love, some do it for money, but all make a conscious choice. Why should hockey players be any different?

And yet there is another part of me that seems to think that, while Laich is right to a point – he is a grown man making his own decisions – his information is incomplete. Many sources define informed consent as when an individual has a clear appreciation and understanding of the facts, implications, and future consequences of an action. But long term brain injury is a serious health risk, and there is still a great deal about concussions that is unknown, even to doctors researching the phenomenon. So if neurologists are still grappling with the problem, how does a professional hockey player really expect to be fully informed about the risks, with a “clear appreciation and understanding of the facts?” Besides, if the precautions mean he misses a shift or two in the “quiet room,” that seems a small price to pay in the name of preserving his long term neurological health.

As with any issue as complex as this, there are no easy answers. There are no “perfect” solutions. But one of the biggest questions I find myself asking – and that I feel may underscore all of these debates – is this: What constitutes “informed” consent? Especially when it comes to an injury that may impair one’s decision making capability, at what point are we able to draw the line, sit back and say “You’ve been warned. Continue at your own peril.”?

Sportsnet Magazine: My Initial Thoughts…

 

Recently, Rogers Media in Canada released its newest offering – Sportsnet Magazine. According to Rogers, the aim of this new offering is to take on Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine, but with a decidedly Canadian perspective. I recently got my hands on the inaugural issue of Sportsnet Magazine, and below are some of my initial thoughts.

The Good. Content-wise, this magazine is a homerun. Pretty much from front to back all of the writing is engaging, relevant, and well informed. One of my favorite aspects of all the writing is the trademark Canadian sense of humour that has found its way onto the pages of this magazine. Not only from Bob McCown, from whom such is to be expected, but pretty much from front to back, there is a sense of humour found within the pages that is just not to be found in any other publications of this kind.

Sportsnet Magazine's Premier issue lacked the visual "pop" I was hoping for...

The Bad. I understand that the release of this magazine came as a fresh NHL season was about to start. I also understand that hockey is about as Canadian an institution as the Mounties’ red coats. But I put this magazine down feeling as though I’d just finished a copy of The Hockey News. It would be a real tragedy if this magazine simply reverted to the cliché of the hockey obsessed Canadian to promote itself as “Canadian.” There is so much more to the athletic landscape of Canada than hockey. Earlier in September and the first half of October the Rugby World Cup was being contested in New Zealand, and Canada was represented by a fine squad. Yet there was only a single photo of this event, with no related content. The President’s cup is around the corner, with several Canadian golfers set to be included. Again, nothing. The upcoming NLL season? Nope. Build up to the Pan Am games? Nada. Canadian College sports preview? Nothing. Only future issues will reveal if this magazine can truly give a Canadian perspective on sports, rather than simply falling back on old clichés to fill its pages.

The Ugly. For all that the publishers did right with regards to quality content, they dropped the ball horribly from a graphical point of view. One of the things that sets Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine apart is that they are visually spectacular. From the covers to the photos that each publishes, each brings a unique, stylish, and ultimately engaging graphical element to their magazines that draw the reader in. Sportsnet Magazine simple lacks any kind of “pop” from a visual standpoint. Had I not been looking for it specifically, it would have simply melted into the newsstand like so many other publications.

If they really want to promote sports from a Canadian point of view, they have a great opportunity not just to promote Canadian athletes, but also to foster the next generation of Canadian sport photographers. Admittedly this is a subject of which I am horribly ignorant – for all I know they are already doing this – but my ignorance may be due to their neglect. I would love to see a short piece each month about the work of specific Canadian sports photographers. After all, sports magazines are as much about the photos as they are about the articles. They are the images that young athletes insert themselves into, imagining future glories.

Overall I did enjoy the initial offering of Sportnet Magazine, but obviously feel they have some work to do if they are to be successful in taking on the Sports Illustrated’s of the world.

Brendan Shanahan: Making the NHL’s Hardest Job Just a Bit Easier

 

Brendan Shanahan looks to be as effective in his role with the NHL as he was on the ice during his craeer.

The NHL season starts tomorrow, but already we have seen a flurry of activity within the league. Most notable among the goings on have been the record number of suspensions handed down by the NHL’s newly appointed VP of Player Safety, Brendan Shanahan.

In addition to being the face of the NHL’s new “tough on head shots” policy, Shanahan has not only been making waves for the number of suspensions he’s handed down thus far, but also for the manner in which he’s doing it. No longer content to rely on a press release outlining the player, infraction, and discipline applied, Shanahan is taking to the internet, and has produced a small video explanation of every single disciplinary action that has come to his attention. These videos include a short clip of the incident(s) in question (from multiple angles and slow motion), a citation of the applicable rules, what, if any discipline has been decided upon, and, most importantly, his reasoning behind why or why not a certain decision was reached (The videos can be found on the NHL’s website, in the video section under the Player Safety channel).

One of the things I most remember about the discipline handed out by Colin Campbell (Shanahan’s predecessor) is a total lack of transparency. He would make an announcement that a certain player was under review, then shortly thereafter issue a decision via press release, often with little to no explanation to how he applied the rules in making his decision. Often times these press releases were criticized in the media for failing to set guidelines for players and coaches that were easy to follow, and that Campbell’s discipline was often inconsistent and arbitrary. This often set up a very acrimonious relationship between the players and the NHL as an organization, since there was such a perceived lack of clarity or consistency in the application of discipline.

In my opinion, part of what makes Shanahan’s new approach with these video such a great idea is that Shanahan is announcing that his tenure will be much different from that of Campbell’s without openly criticizing his predecessor. By showing the exact play, quoting the exact rule, and clearly outlining his decision making process, Shanahan has put himself in a much different light that those who have held his role before him. In many ways he has announced his presence, in addition to the dawning of a new era in the NHL with regards to headshots, in a very clever way. Not only that, but he has put himself in a better position with regards to the league, the players, and the media since he has preempted any attempts to call his judgment into question. Players, coaches, and teams may disagree with his decisions, but he has set up a system that is easy to defend and is accessible to all.

Most importantly, in my opinion, the transparency that he has introduced into this aspect of professional sports is a stroke of genius. It has so many potential benefits, and relatively few drawbacks. Among the ways that this approach can be beneficial, some of the following are what appeal to me:

1 – Trust. One of the biggest things that these videos do is instill a sense of trust that anyone appearing before Shanahan’s desk will receive a fair shake. By clearly outlining what his criteria are for legal and illegal plays, he is setting a bar that is equal across the league. Gone are the days of “you’re suspended because we said so.” Players, coaches, and teams may not agree with Shanahan’s decisions, but at least they are able to see how he came to a decision.

2 – Clarity. One of the factors that can erode relationships within a group faster than anything else is a lack of clarity. A lack of clarity of roles, of rules, and of repercussions can often lead to frustration amongst everyone involved. By showing a clear decision making process, Shanahan is allowing the rest of the league to buy-in to his process, as well as giving crystal clear examples of what types of plays will and will not result in suspensions.

3 – Consistency. In addition to holding players to set guidelines with regards to their play, the other thing that Shanahan has done is very subtly set himself a set of guidelines. Players will be able to judge how consistent Shanahan is in applying discipline based on his previous decisions – a fact of which I am almost positive Shanahan must have been aware of when he made the decision to release his rulings via video. By allowing himself to be held to certain standards, he once again is  building the relationship between the NHL and the players employed therein.

All of these really contribute to the players’ understanding his decision making process, as well as having the added benefit of building a more cooperative relationship between Shanahan’s office and the players under his purview.

The Cuban Effect: Why Corporate Ownership of Teams is Bad for Fans, Bad for Sports, and Ultimately Bad for Business.

 

Mark Cuban - Billionaire, Owner - World Champion Dallas Mavericks

With the advent of fall comes one of my favourite times of year – hockey season. Over the past off season, there has been a lot going on in the hockey world, some good, some bad, and some tragic. The summer of 2011 proved to be the most devastating to the hockey world with the number of deaths witnessed in a short number of months. But there were also triumphs: Winnipeg saw its beloved Jets return, and many teams improved their fortunes in the free agent market.

Ultimately, for me though, this offseason has been punctuated by the first stirrings in the media that the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Fund (majority owner of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), which in turns own The Toronto Maple Leafs) is starting to make rumblings that it may be ready to sell its 80% stake in this storied franchise. As a fan of The Leafs, this news (and the sale) can’t come soon enough. And here’s why – sports teams owned by corporations are, on the whole, mediocre.

Within the class of “corporately owned teams,” the Maple Leafs happen to be the franchise with which I’m most familiar, but there are several other major sports franchises in North America that are majority owned and operated by “Sports Groups” rather than individuals. The Phoenix Coyotes (NHL), Edmonton Oilers (NHL), Houston Texans (NFL), Miami Dolphins (NFL), and Toronto Blue Jays (MLB) are but a few examples of the mediocrity produced when sports franchises are ruled by committee, rather than with an individual owner. So why is this such a problem? The vast majority of large corporations are operated in such a way – what makes sports franchises so different?

The biggest problem is that too often, there is no “ultimate authority” that must be answered to when things don’t go as planned. “But all these teams have executive boards” you say, “Surely SOMEONE must be in charge?” Well, yes and no. It’s true that every sports team owned by a group of investors has an executive board, and yes, they all have a Chairman. But the problem is that this chairman is in turn answerable to his investors, and in most cases is expected to turn a profit (winning a championship is often a secondary consideration). There is no real personal stake beyond doing his job well and being lauded (and compensated) for it.

Individual majority owners are a different story though. Presumably they have made their money and had their accomplishments lauded already. Where else would they get the money to buy a sports team? Often times, the purchase of a sports franchise transcends the business opportunity it may be. As much as owners may be interested in the bottom line, they are also interested in WINNING. For the most part, the thing that has propelled these people to the positions they are in is a classic Type A, super-competitive personality. Sure they want to make money, but more than that, they want to win because A) it reaffirms their self-image as a person of influence) and B) because the thought of losing is detestable to them on the most basic psychological level.

Among some of the most successful franchises within North American sports, there’s a clear connection between private ownership, and each team’s success. Consider the following list: Larry Kraft (New England Patriots), Dan Rooney (Pittsburgh Steelers), George Steinbrenner (late of the NY Yankees), Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Jerry Buss (LA Lakers), Mike Ilitch (Detroit Red Wings), Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks). Seven owners, numerous championships, and even more championship appearances.

While it’s true that most of the individuals named don’t own 100% of their respective teams, they do own controlling interests, and for all intents and purposes, are the de facto owners. The buck stops with them. And woe to the player, coach, or executive who fails to deliver on the goal of winning. It’s one thing when fans get upset. Athletes, team administrators, and managers must all accept that the ire of fans is a necessary evil. A hazard of the workplace that must be endured, and for the most part, ignored, if they are to do their jobs effectively. However, it’s quite another when an owner gets upset. Fans may pay the bills, but owners write the cheques. For EVERYONE. They have the authority to make hires and fires on a whim, if they so choose. But what if the owner is a nameless, faceless, unemotional entity controlled by committee, reporting to investors? Success is no longer measured in wins and losses – it’s now measured in dollars and cents. And that’s no way to run a championship sports team.

Even worse is the fact that the leadership structure of the organization no longer has an ultimate authority. In the case of corporations, this isn’t such a big deal, as the ultimate goal is to produce a return for investors. Every person must do his/her job, and the machine will keep running, provided the board steers a steady course. But with sports teams, the dynamic is much different. Yes, front office personnel must work diligently. But it is the athletes who bear the majority of the responsibility for whether a franchise is successful or not.

Within the athletic framework, a clear leadership hierarchy is paramount to ensure the group as a whole functions properly and is kept in check if/when things start to go sideways. Athletes answer to coaches. Coaches answer to GMs. GMs answer to Presidents, and Presidents answer to…..a group of people who want to protect an investment? With that kind of structure the emphasis from the top down starts to focus less on winning, and more on the bottom line. Sure, professional athletes and coaches are as competitive and driven to win more than the average Joe, but without a certain level of extrinsic motivation in the form of a supreme authority figure, there is far more potential to get complacent. Not only that, but the drive and ability of the franchise to acquire and retain high quality athletes at any cost starts to diminish in favour of getting the most value for the payroll, even if it means a slightly lower quality roster. GMs do the best they can, but ultimately they are given a budget and must work within those constraints.

In most of the sporting world, this isn’t a problem, since a team’s record and a team’s profits are usually linked to one another. But over the last few years there have been those franchises that have found ways to be profitable despite a losing record.

Now, some of you may be saying  what about BAD owners? Don’t they offset the balance of your argument? While it’s true, a bad owner can do immeasurably harm to a team (Donald Sterling – LA Clipers, Frank McCourt – LA Dodgers, and more locally, Harold Ballard – formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1980’s), the potential upside is far greater than what we’re seeing more and more in sports, as corporations seek to cash in on the lucrative business of sports.

And let’s not forget one of the other benefits to having a private owner for a sports teams – often they become entertainment in and of themselves.

Time for a J.A.W.B.?

 

Welcome to the first entry for RW Consulting. First, I want to make clear – I am going to make every effort to make sure this isn’t Just Another Wordpress Blog. I want to be engaging, or at the very least, thought provoking with these entries, and with the website as a whole.

So what am I trying to do here? Well, my intent is two fold. First, I’m looking to provide commentary about the athletic and business worlds from a decidedly psychological perspective. Rather than simply commenting on the state of affairs, my intent is provide psychological commentary about the key players of various events. What was an athlete or leader thinking? Where did a certain reaction come from? How are current events likely to affect athletes and/or groups? – I intend to try and answer those questions and more.

Second, I am going to educate the general public about what sport psychology, mental strength and conditioning, and the psychology of performance entail. What they are, and especially what they aren’t, will often be key talking points for me. Perhaps this is the best place for me to start.

Too often I’ve found that Sport Psychology (the main area of my own training) and the Psychology of Performance is stigmatized as the last bastion of a desperate mind, just this side of Tony Robbins and the self-help gurus of the 90’s. In some cases, that has been true in the past. However, from my own perspective, the psychology of performance has so much more to offer beyond the over-simplified view often held by the public that all we do in the field is get people to “imagine” doing things better. The field is full of concrete activities and exercises that can have real effects on a person’s performance.

Ultimately the field really boils down to insight – both about one’s self (in the form of self-knowledge) and about those one may interact with (be they competitors or co-workers). Sun-Tzu, the ancient Chinese military philosopher, is often quoted as saying the following

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Sport psychology, in its purest form, is about gaining such types of insight. My hope is that the following posts help in your own development…

Mental Strength and Conditioning: For Sport. For Business. For Life.