We need to talk about concussion

As rugby league fans, we love watching the collisions. They’re a huge part of the game. We scream at our team to ‘Smash ‘em’, and cheer loudly when the hits come flying in. We complain when rule-makers do anything to ‘soften’ the sport, like ban the shoulder charge or review tackles when a player stays down, serious injury or otherwise. We cry out on social media for ‘the good old days’ — Bring Back the Biff. It’s the physical, intimidating nature of rugby league that’s a major part of its appeal — the fearless way these giants charge at one another. There’s no doubting it takes courage to run full speed at the defensive line — test after test of strength and toughness. But sometimes it also takes courage to admit when you are hurting, to admit when you are afraid.

When you’re watching sport, sometimes it’s hard to view the players as real people. They perform feats that sometimes don’t seem possible, do things that you can’t and could never imagine doing. We fans have unrealistic expectations of players, as if they’re actors playing a role, characters in a video game. In a way, they become immortal, super-human. When they get injured, we expect them to get up, to shake it off, to be okay.

That’s one reason why it’s such a shock when something serious occurs, why it hits us so hard. It doesn’t seem real that a fit, strong athlete could die playing cricket, that a rugby league player could break their neck or lose their life, or that a football player could collapse during a game and never recover. It’s at these times when reality hits, when we are forced to remember that sport is ‘just a game’. And, to be honest, it’s a huge fall back down to Earth. These tragic events are almost beyond the realms of possibility, so far outside the expected experience that they shock us, make us grieve much more than we might otherwise expect.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like head injury, most notably concussion, is becoming an almost common occurrence in rugby league today — very few games go by without one. When I try to think about this logically, about why it might be happening, I can see how it makes sense. In the professional era, with enhanced fitness and training regimes creating bigger, faster, stronger athletes, it would seem to follow that the hits are getting harder, and thus, the impact on both the body and the brain is getting larger.

I have no medical training or expertise. I am just a fan, a spectator of this great game. But I am concerned. I am worried.

The Brain Injury Support website describes concussion as a mild traumatic brain injury, which occurs from a blow to the head or violent shaking. The website later goes on to add that repeated concussions have a cumulative effect, introducing the term Second Impact Syndrome and describing it as ‘acute brain swelling and bleeding that occurs when a second concussion is sustained before the first one has healed properly. This can be difficult to treat, and can be fatal.’

The NZRL (New Zealand Rugby League) also released a concussion policy document in February 2015, which is worth a read to help understand concussion in a rugby league context.

I don’t highlight these worst-case scenarios to criticise the NRL, the NZRL or rugby league in general, but simply to illustrate the huge challenge administrators now face.

I realise that there are risks in almost everything we do. It would be silly to suggest no one ever drives a car or gets in an airplane, or to say that people shouldn’t let their children climb trees or play contact sports. But the idea of another tragedy in an NRL game is no longer beyond the realms of possibility. I genuinely worry that, sometime soon, we may witness an event on the rugby league field that could change the game forever.

So how do we tackle this issue? How can the game protect its players from accidental injury?

I’m afraid I don’t have the answers. I’m merely continuing this conversation. I’m interested to hear what others think. The NRL is obviously taking steps to improve the situation. Players who suffer a head knock are now required to undergo testing before they are allowed to return to the field, and if they lose consciousness they must sit out the rest of the game. These are steps in the right direction. These actions will save lives and prevent serious injuries.

But is that enough? Who knows? As I said, I’m not a medical expert, and at some point you have to trust that the doctors and specialists who treat the players on a daily basis are doing the best they can. If nothing more, their reputations and their own careers ride on the decisions they make, so for selfish reasons they ought to be concerned with player safety and welfare.

I would ask however, why professional sportsman are not held to the same stand-down period that is recommended to amateur athletes. The NZRL’s concussion document referenced above, calls for all players over the age of 16 who suffer concussion to observe a mandatory minimum stand-down period of 21 days. New Zealand’s ACC website also recommends this three-week stand-down period, but makes exceptions for players in an international competition, stating that they can return earlier ‘if they are symptom-free and have received clearance from a recognised neurological specialist.’

Are professional players not just as at risk of long-term damage as the general population? Or is it that the general population don’t have access to those neurological specialists needed for medical clearance?

How much impact would it have on the game if NRL players were forced to sit out for three weeks after receiving a concussion? Would teams need squads of 40? 50?

Is there anything that can be done within the game to reduce the impact on the head and brain?

Could the offside line go back to 5 metres?

Could there be harsher penalties on high or reckless contact?

Or would rule changes detract too much from what has become an incredibly marketable and entertaining product? The greatest game of all?

So many questions, and very few answers. I’m sure smarter people than me are looking at this very issue as you read this. However, I am convinced this is a very real threat to the game. If someone died in an NRL game, would it damage the sport? What if it started happening once a year? More? Or am I over-reacting? Rugby league has been around for over 100 years — it will be fine.

Maybe some of my reasons for this discussion are selfish reasons. I love this game. I don’t want to see this game die. The best way to ensure that never happens is to protect those involved. Let’s not be afraid to tackle the toughest issues.

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