Getting our heads around sports concussions

On first viewing it appeared an odd question, and Ireland’s Chris Henry seemed just as bemused as the sharp hearing viewers at home who heard the referee ask ‘What’s my name?’. The Ulsterman quickly composed himself and answered “Nigel” before giving the referee a pat on the back as he re-joined his waiting teammates. This brief interaction was mostly overlooked after Ireland’s 24-9 victory over France in the rugby world cup, but behind referee Nigel Owens’ trivial question was a hint of concern. He had noticed Henry kneel down and hold his head briefly and made sure to check he was fine to continue playing.

On that occasion, Henry showed no ill-effects, but Mike McCarthy was not so lucky last Saturday as Ireland met France in another bruising encounter. After a nasty clash of heads no similar line of questioning was required. He was promptly withdrawn from the game and became the second Irishman to suffer a suspected concussion in this year’s Six Nations.


Will Smith in promotional poster for Concussion.

Defined as a mild traumatic brain injury, rugby fans are becoming increasingly aware of sports-related brain damage. This coincides with the release of the film Concussion earlier this month. It stars Will Smith as Dr Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian born doctor who discovered and drew attention to the prevalence of chronic trauma encephalopathy (CTE) – a degenerative brain disease that is thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head – in former American football players despite the opposition of the National Football League. The film may not be celebrated in the annals of cinema, it was described as ‘drab and occasionally useless‘ by the Irish Times, but its importance to sport and in raising awareness on concussion cannot be understated.


The National Football League is a pillar of American life. It, as one character in the trailer for Concussion states, ‘is a corporation that owns a day of the week’. This year’s Super Bowl was the third most watched broadcast in US television history. This makes concerns over its players safety all the more pressing.

In the build-up to the Super Bowl, The New York Times reported that the brain of Hall of Fame quarterback Ken Stabler showed evidence of CTE. This news sees Stabler join a growing list of former players who displayed symptoms of the disease. Junior Seau is another. He took his own life at  the age of 43 after a period of erratic behaviour, and his family are now embroiled in a lawsuit with the NFL.

Then there is the case of Antwaan Randle El, who despite being only 36 is currently feeling the effects of a career in the NFL. ‘I have to come down [the stairs] sideways sometimes, depending on the day,’ he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His memory has similarly become affected and he discussed how he will repeat questions to his wife ‘three times the night before and get up in the morning and forget’.

As the US and the NFL continues to come to terms with concussion, it would be foolish to dismiss these incidents as not applicable in this part of the world. Only this week, BBC Scotland tweeted an excerpt of an interview with former rugby player John Shaw, 47, in which he suffers a ‘cut out’. The clip makes for chilling viewing but exhibits the health risks faced by today’s professionals.

Rugby is not the only game to take steps against concussion. The opening round of the Allianz football league at the end of January witnessed a bone-crunching collision between Lee Keegan of Mayo and Eoin Cadogan of Cork. Despite the one sided score in favour of Cork, Keegan was allowed to continue playing for a further 10 minutes despite appearing to show the symptoms of a concussion. When he eventually left the field, he had to do so with the assistance of medics. The Mayo medical team later conceded they had erred in this instance but the incident shows that the GAA need examine this issue.

Youths are just as susceptible to concussion despite the lesser physicality of the game as exemplified by the recent schoolboy rugby match between Gonzaga and Roscrea. The game  was marred by an incident that saw a member of Gonzaga’s medical staff react angrily when the referee ordered the substitution of a player he suspected to have suffered a head injury. While the player ultimately did not play on, the medic intensely argued the referee’s decision. The medics actions are inexplicable and the distressing story of 14-year-old Ben Robinson should serve as a reminder of the dangers in allowing youths to continue playing in a game after taking a blow to the head.

With this growing awareness of concussion in rugby, will amateur players reconsider playing the game? Barry Treanor suffered a concussion when playing for his club after being on the receiving end of a late and high tackle. The diagnosis left Barry with a three week period on the sideline and a complete ban on contact sports. When asked about his experience he answers that “of course” he has concerns of suffering another concussion but that ‘it doesn’t affect [his] desire to play rugby’ and he cites the introduction of the ‘Head Injury Assessment’ (HIA) protocols in rugby as a sign that the sport is committed to addressing this issue.


Rugby attempt’s to tackle head injuries have not pleased all quarters. World Rugby’s former anti-doping commissioner Dr Barry O’Driscoll is one opponent. He has been joined by Dr Omalu who discussed this issue on Newstalk’s Off the Ball show in recent weeks while doing promotion for the film based on his work. He pointed out that much of the discourse centres around whether a player has suffered a concussion or not, and that brain trauma does not require a concussion to manifest. He said, ‘For one documented case of concussion there are thousands of sub-concussive blows. Mike Webster, for example, suffered CTE without suffering a serious concussion in his life.’
As the daily experiences of Antwaan Randle El and  John Shaw show, the consequences of putting your body on the line do not cease alongside your playing days. Leinster’s Kevin McLaughlin last year became another player who was advised to retire after suffering a concussion. In the NFL, Chris Borland decided to walk away from the game before reaching that point. However, there are many more players who love sport too much to give up their livelihoods. Nor should they be faced with that decision, but until the sporting authorities find the way to combat this plight, it is a question many athletes will have to consider.


(Photo Credit). 

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