Playing head games


With the issue of player safety being discussed now more than ever, Kevin Beirne looks at the long-term effects of some of the more physical sports on show 

Many sports pride themselves on their physicality. For many, the main appeal of sports such as rugby or American football is the sight of impossibly giant men crashing into each other at full speed. In American football in particular, players go out in search of the “big hit” in the hopes of ending up on the weekly highlight reel.

Rugby Union turned professional in 1995, but even in the amateur era it was expected that players would throw caution to the wind and put their bodies on the line in the pursuit of glory. Anyone who shies away from physical contact will, quite simply, not make it at the top level of the sport.

The situation in boxing and professional wrestling is even clearer. Even though pro wrestling is staged, the performers are required to take hit after hit. Collateral damage happens, with many moves being impossible to fake, such as the diving headbutt. In some instances, wrestlers are even expected to take shots directly to the head from steel chairs and other dangerous instruments.

Recently a question has been raised: is there enough being done to protect these athletes? It is so easy to watch a rugby match or a fight in boxing and forget that what you are witnessing can have long-term ramifications for those involved, even if the effects are not immediately apparent.

In America, there is a large movement among ex-NFL players who wish to protect those currently playing. They are calling on the league to change the rules when it comes to both dangerous play which could lead to a head injury, and in the way teams have to treat head injuries.

Now, when an NFL player is concussed, they must go through a series of evaluations from an independent doctor and cannot play until they are diagnosed as “symptom free”. We have seen something similar being introduced this season in rugby in the form of the “concussion bin”, in which players thought to have suffered a concussion are forced to leave the field of play for at least five minutes while they undergo a series of cognitive evaluations, only returning if they are cleared by the team doctor.

The NFL has been forced to radically change its stance on concussions, following the criticism of many former players. Perhaps the most significant moment in the concussion prevention movement was the suicide of former linebacker Junior Seau, a potential Hall of Famer.

Seau’s suicide was unusual because of the manner in which it was committed; by gunshot wound to the chest. This was the same method used by Dave Duerson, a former NFL, who had chosen this way so that his brain would be intact for scientists to study it for signs of brain trauma.

The particular brain trauma which has been most strongly associated with concussions is known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It is a progressive degenerate disease which can only be diagnosed post-mortem, and is strongly linked to athletes who have suffered multiple concussions, as well as former soldiers.

CTE is manifested by the accumulation of tau protein in the brain, resulting in the degeneration of brain tissue. Those who suffer from CTE are also more likely to show signs of illnesses such as dementia, symptoms which include memory-loss, aggression and depression.

One of the most famous cases of an athlete who suffered from CTE was the late Chris Benoit. Benoit was a Canadian wrestler in the WWE who, at the age of 40, murdered his wife and seven year-old son, before committing suicide by hanging himself with his own gym equipment.

At the time of his death, Benoit was scheduled to fight for the ECW title, and had to be replaced at the last minute as he claimed to have missed his flight. Although the initial reports were that Benoit had snapped due to steroid abuse, a post-mortem examination on his body revealed the existence of CTE in his brain.

According to Julian Bailes, the head of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, where the tests on Benoit’s brain took place: “Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85 year-old Alzheimer’s patient.”

Unfortunately, it does not seem that the WWE is doing anything to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, as it dismisses the idea that Benoit’s obvious brain damage had anything to do with the murder of his family as “speculative”. In fact, the WWE is happy to simply brush this situation under the rug by removing almost all mention of Benoit from their official websites and DVD releases.

Unfortunately for the NFL, they do not have the luxury of pretending nothing is happening to current and former players, since 3,402 players are planning to file one single lawsuit against the league, accusing it of withholding information connecting concussions with long-term brain injuries.

Some estimates of the total number of players interested in joining the case are as high as 20,000, although this number seems unlikely. It would not be a surprise to see all the cases brought together as a class-action suit against the league, although it is unlikely that the case will be heard before 2018.

It is believed by some that the NFL could lose up to $10 billion in this case, a staggering amount of money, even for the NFL. If the NFL were forced to pay out this much, it would seriously hurt the league, although it is unlikely the NFL would go bankrupt, as it is expected to take in $9.5 billion revenue this year alone.

There are many critics out there who believe that the hard stance taken by Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, on dangerous play, with a special focus on hits on defenceless players and helmet-to-helmet hits, is merely a cynical measure taken to weaken the case of those players bringing the suit against them.

But even if the NFL is only increasing the emphasis on player safety in order to insure themselves against future losses, the end result is still a positive one. The NFL recently suspended one of the best head coaches in the game, Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints, for one year due to his involvement in the team’s bounty program.

Gregg Williams, the Saints’ defensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011, supposedly organised a system whereby Saints defenders would receive bonuses for injuring certain players on the opposing teams. When the scandal was made public, Goodell responded by suspending Williams indefinitely as well as handing out suspensions to some players and other coaches involved in the scheme.

The Saints organisation was also fined $500,000 and stripped of its second-round draft picks in the 2012 and 2013 drafts. These sanctions were among the harshest in the league’s 92 year history, as Goodell hoped to set a precedent in order to deter anyone from pushing the boundaries in the future.

Despite all the NFL has done to reduce the amount of head injuries over the past few years, they still come under criticism from some areas for focussing too much on head injuries and ignoring other areas; in particular the leg area.

Because blocking is legal in American football, there are many more opportunities for every player to fall foul to cheap shots to the lower half of their body, with many of these offences going unpunished.

This year saw one of the league’s star linebackers, Brian Cushing, suffer a season-ending injury after he was “chop blocked” by Jets guard Matt Slauson. A chop block is basically when an offensive player makes a block throwing themselves at the defender’s legs, therefore taking out the threat.

It is an incredibly cynical and dangerous form of play, with many of the recipients of these blocks not expecting them. In Cushing’s case, it resulted in a torn anterior-cruciate ligament, which ended his year and could put his entire career in jeopardy.

Reports are coming out this week that the NFL competition committee is looking in to the possibility of banning chop blocks all together, a move that would surely be welcomed by defenders though not by the offensive side of the game, as chop blocks are sometimes seen as a small running back’s only defence against an onrushing defender.

Back closer to home, we can see the changes being made in rugby to make the game safer for all involved. The previously mentioned concussion bin has been welcomed by most as a step forward for the game, much like the introduction of the blood substitution rule.

This season has also seen the implementation of yet another new call for setting the scrum. The old call of “crouch, touch, pause, engage” has been replaced with the monosyllabic “crouch, touch, set” in an attempt to make the scrum more efficient.

Again, this rule change has been seen more as an attempt to reduce the amount of time wasted in resetting scrums over and over and this improving the spectacle of the game, rather than as an injury-preventative measure.

The scrum is an incredibly dangerous set piece, especially for the front row, as a collapse can result in the weight of sixteen of the biggest people on the field falling upon one or two defenceless players. Indeed, many serious injuries have occurred during scrum time, including a few broken spines.

It would not be a surprise to see the IRB find itself in a similar situation to the NFL in a few years’ time, with players bringing a case against them due to the long-term effects the sport has had on their bodies.

Since professional rugby union is still relatively young, we do not know what the long-term effects of a professional career will have. The difference in intensity between the amateur era and the current era is immense, with players bigger and faster than ever before.

For example, one shudders to think of what Brian O’Driscoll’s body will look like in 20 years’ time. He appears to have gone through his entire year carrying at least one injury, but is still going despite turning 34 in January.

It appears that the IRB has learnt from the NFL’s mistakes and is currently trying to stomp out these issues before they happen. It does, however, face the dilemma of maintaining the integrity of the game while making it safe for those who make it so great.

The IRB, and indeed any authority of a sport in which physical contact plays a major role, has a responsibility to look out for those playing the sport. Fans, meanwhile, must accept that their sporting heroes are human and not just programmable robots, built to entertain us.

At the end of the day, these sports are just games, and no one wants to see anybody’s life destroyed by them. All we can do is trust that the powers that be will keep the players’ concerns at the front of their minds, while still retaining the physical intensity that keeps us coming back for more.