COMMENT: Are Sporting Authorities Really Grasping Concussion Issue?

This week, Gavin turns his attentions away from the COVID crisis, as he asks if another crisis is in danger of engulfing some of our most popular sports.

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This past weekend was a big one in our house.

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I took a couple of days off the show to enjoy the Super Bowl (Kansas City lost, so it wasn’t enjoyable unfortunately) and, more importantly, to celebrate the birthday of my now-somehow-six-year-old David. Happy birthday buddy.

We had our celebration – muted, of course – and then fell into what is a bit of a Daddy-David tradition of this weekend – watching Ireland play in the Six Nations, which coincidentally falls at the same time of the year.

We watched the Wales match together on Sunday, David and I, with he in his Ireland shirt. Another disappointing result, of course, but these things happen. But what troubled me then, and since, is how five of the players who started that match were removed from the field with suspected concussions (three from Ireland, and two for Wales). Four of them didn’t return. For one, Johnny Sexton – who has a long history with concussions – we were shown replays of a hard-to-watch collision between his head and a Welsh players knee.

Not easy watching for this Daddy, knowing his six year old was watching on.

I am a rugby fan. I’ve been to dozens of professional matches over the past decade and can think of at least four players who I have seen, in person, suffer what turned out to be career-ending concussion-related injuries at those games. That’s a pretty shocking rate of attrition, and it’s made me wonder if rugby, and other sports here, are truly grasping this issue. Head injuries will happen in a collision sport, and rugby authorities talk a good game in terms of the measures they are taking to protect players. But it’s hard not to think that the matches of today, enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of fans, will leave some players with serious problems into the future. It’s only a few months since the shocking story of Steve Thompson emerged – a Rugby World Cup winner with England in 2003, he has no memory of that night in Sydney, which was the pinnacle of his sporting career.

He’s 42 years old. He’s not alone in suffering these problems.

But the issues, I feel, could well go beyond the professional game. How many parents like me, who winced on Sunday or during other rugby games, will decide that this sport isn’t for their sons or daughters? To be clear, I think team sports are fantastic for children, and clearly one of the biggest impacts of this current period is that children haven’t been able to be together in and out of school. I look forward to bringing David to training for whatever sport he wants to get into, and to be clear I will have no issue if he decides to get into rugby. But watching the game on Sunday, even as a fan of the sport myself, I would be very uncomfortable if he wanted to play the game in any serious way beyond childhood.

No sport is completely safe. Dozens of soccer players, particularly from the 1960s era, have been diagnosed with dementia. In recent times, I’ve interviewed two Clare GAA stars about their own stark experiences with concussion and how head injuries. But sporting authorities need to be moving Heaven and Earth to protect their players, of all ages.

So no heading the football, please, for young children. No tackling at young ages in rugby. Some changes have already been made in this area, but ensure that they are enacted within each and every club. And, yes, governing bodies need to look at the professional games too and change them if necessary to minimise the risk.

Going back to the NFL, finally. The glitz and glamour of the Super Bowl belies the fact that it is an incredibly violent game, and that it had to grapple with concussions before other sports, striking a settlement worth nearly $1 billion in 2013, though this came long after the human toll of concussions had started to become apparent. And the impact is being felt in other ways too, with a significant decline in the number of children and teenagers who are playing what is, ostensibly, America’s biggest sport. And while that’s unlikely to be solely down to concussion, there’s no doubting but that the headlines are influencing the decisions of parents and families when it comes to choosing what game it is that they want to play.

If authorities here don’t take action, they too could be hit with a similar decline.