Clinicians at Royal Alfred Hospital today confirmed what we all knew – that Rugby League is a physical game that causes permanent brain injury. It’s not the only contact sport this is relevant for – this will impact rugby union, AFL and even soccer – but it is the most prominent so far. The only people that were surprised by these findings were the papers who said rugby league was “rocked” (The Sydney Morning Herald) and “shocked” (The Daily Telegraph).
Anyone that has had half an eye on the American sporting world would know it’s been an issue coming down the pipe. Even the “rocked” and “shocked” National Rugby League (NRL) have introduced more stringent concussion protocols in recent years, and have slowly begun to turn around a culture that had always valued “toughness” over player welfare.
Much progress has been made. The protocol seems to work often. There’s an acceptance that players will miss part of games, or spend weeks on the sidelines to protect themselves. In certain sectors (i.e the people I follow on Twitter) there’s revulsion and criticism at the slightest whiff that the concussion protocol is either being misused, or not used strongly enough. It’s a good start but there is much to do.
What these findings should do is give the NRL the foundation and impetus to put in more stringent measures to ensure the game is as safe as possible for the men and women that play this game.
There are improvements that can be made to the existing protocol. Without questioning the professionalism of the existing team doctors, independent doctors should provide an “arms-length” approach to decision making around head-injury assessments.
This would also allow the introduction of an “18th man” specifically for concussion substitutions. By removing the decision as to whether a player has a concussion from the team you also remove the ability to manipulate an extra substitution. This is not to say this occurs now; but it’s important that integrity of that system is strengthen and protected. It is the central mechanism to protect the players.
There’s also a need for more innovative thinking. The National Football League in America is no doubt investigating everything it can to ensure it stays a viable business. The NRL should be (and probably is) doing everything it can to leverage that more-resourced organisation’s research. Reportedly the Australian Rugby Union is similarly doing good work. There are opportunities for the NRL to copy ideas already tested in other sports.
Further thought should go into how the competition can find resources (i.e money) to support ex-players. Pension payments to players that have given their bodies and minds for the game. Clear funding to have appropriate mental and physical health checks will be important for prevention and monitoring. The NRL should also find a way to support and help care for those who have been impacted.
And we the fans have a role too. We need to support players safety beyond the immediate needs of our team. I know that’s hard, but we need to keep in my find these players are mothers and fathers, people’s friends and family. They go to work like the rest of us, and their loved ones just want them to be able to come home safely. We may need to consider a sport that looks different to what it is today, and hopefully still love it.
There’s an inherent risk in competitive sport, but we as a culture, a sport and a community can make sure that risk is as small as practicable. We should make sure we do so.