Sadly, we are finding out that the rumor is true: Bob Probert is dead at 45. As a hockey fan, I always appreciated his rough-and-tumble playing style. He asked no quarter, gave no quarter, and always left it all on the ice. As an "enforcer," his job was to deliver hard checks and fight the opponent's "enforcer" on a regular basis. Red Wings fans cheered him on; in spite of his well-documented personal problems, he was still one of the most beloved players to ever don the Winged Wheel. His early death, though, begs a question:
Was Probert a victim of his own playing style and the expectations it brought?
Enforcers fight and deliver crushing body checks; it's what they are expected to do every time they go onto the ice. They are involved in many high-impact collisions every time they play a game. When one considers an average close to a hundred games a year counting playoffs over a period of ten or fifteen years, that is a lot of collisions and a lot of impact. It isn't much of a stretch that it would involve a lot of concussions. According to a CNN article from Jaunary 27, 2009:
"Far from innocuous, invisible injuries, concussions confer tremendous brain damage. That damage has a name: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)."
CTE is routinely found in ex-NFL players, and the beginnings of it were even found in the brain of an 18-year-old who had suffered multiple concussions.
Chris Nowinski, an ex-WWE wrestler and founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, which researches head injuries, had to retire from one concussion after a kick to his chin connected with more force than intended or scripted. According to Nowinski:
"My world changed," said Nowinski. "I had depression. I had memory problems. My head hurt for five years."
On January 21, 2008, Science Daily stated:
"Researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University have identified the neurological basis of depression in male athletes with persisting post-concussion symptoms."
In the case of Probert or any athlete, I believe that drug and/or alcohol abuse can result from "self-medication" of depression symptoms. While I am unable to find a study showing a causal relationship between depression and drug abuse, they have been found to occur together too many times for it to be mere coincidence.
Depression is often treated by SSRI's, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Those with clinical depression have been found to have low serotonin levels, and the drugs keep the body from breaking down its own serotonin, thus increasing the serotonin level. However, there are many substances that also increase serotonin, which would be a different way of "medicating" the problem. A few of those substances are alcohol, cocaine, and ecstasy. Marijuana hasn't been proven to directly increase serotonin, but researchers concede that it "may" do just that.
It isn't much of a leap to see that drugs are an effective way to unconsciously treat depression, whether or not it has been diagnosed. Unfortunately, we all know of their myriad "side effects." One in particular is that when one raises one's serotonin with recreational drugs, it tends to "crash" the next day. It is easy to see how addictive patterns can be formed in short periods of time for those with chronically low serotonin levels.
Probert's problems with drugs and alcohol were well-documented and kept him from moving freely across the US-Canada border on a regular basis. Between the drugs and a typical professional athlete's lifestyle, there was probably enough to ravage his body to a point where dying young was inevitable. But I also think that the repeated blows to the head had a lot to do with his addictions, his quality of life, and his ultimate death at 45.
I know many may see Probert as a victim of his own shortcomings, but I think he was much more a victim of his sport and how he played it. No matter what a tox screen or autopsy shows, I believe that it was chronic impact, both directly and indirectly, to the head that was the root of most of his problems.
I also believe that it is time to take research even further and to explore ways to make all sports safer for their combatants. I couldn't find any stats for NHL players, but NFL players now have a life expectancy of 52 years. It is usually blamed on their BMI, but it is beginning to appear that both NFL and NHL players are at least anecdotally more prone to Alzheimer's Disease and depression than the general population.
I think a lot more research needs to be done on athletes in contact sports, depression, CTE, and its relation to drug and alcohol abuse. Athletes live in a macho world, and are probably the last people who would ever "admit" that they have clinical depression. Active players are under peer pressure to play through injuries and illness, and a condition that is often percieved as "all in the head" would be seen as unmasculine by a players peers. I would imagine that athletes and ex-athletes percieve depression as a "bad mood" that needs to be "shaken off."
The culture needs to be modified so that a player can spot early signs of depression and CTE and get the proper care early enough to have a long life and a good quality of life. Drug and alcohol abuse, instead of being seen as a "lack of maturity" or a "lack of discipline," needs to be investigated as a possible early symptom of CTE and depression.
Nobody has any idea what an autopsy of Bob Probert will find, but I can't help but think that unless more research is done regarding athletes and chronic head trauma, his death will have been in vain no matter what the autopsy shows.
For those who want research, here are a couple of links to articles with more links:
And a link to the Sports Legacy institute: