Concussion has recently become a common headline in the world of sport, with experts beginning to question the safety of athletes due to emerging evidence over the last decade. In the NFL this issue was stumbled across by Dr Bennet Omalu who discovered the presence of CTE amongst former players. Similarly in rugby, measures have been taken to reduce head injuries in the game at all levels, a petition was even created to ban contact in rugby until players reach the age of 18. But are such ideas actually realistic in helping the situation? Even football, a non-contact sport, has been subject to criticism regarding concussion due to the frequent collisions per game a player can experience when heading the ball.
Most notably in recent years, the NFL has been subject to the most publicity in relation to the safety of their athletes. In an average game, a player can experience impacts at a velocity of 25 miles per hour, due to the huge size and speed of the players. The maximum acceleration and deceleration the brain experiences inside the skull can reach a disturbing magnitude of 138 times the force of gravity. Therefore, it is not surprising that in every NFL game there is on average one concussion per team and independent doctors now have to be on the side-line of every game to provide impartial analysis of head injuries.
Recently it has become apparent that many former players have suffered from serious mental illnesses such as depression as a result of frequent head trauma and consequently have even committed suicide in some cases. Dr Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist discovered the origin for all this by furthering his interests into the brains of former NFL players after an autopsy on an elite former player, Mike Webster, who had died aged 50 of a heart attack. He discovered the presence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE. It is a syndrome that many mental illnesses are associated with such as dementia, anxiety and depression. The type of CTE found in American football players is called gridiron dementia, “permanent brain damage caused by past frequent blows to the head”. A young retired athlete with gridiron dementia in his thirties, forties and ﬁfties will have a brain resembling that of a dementia-afflicted individual who is over eighty years old. However even after this discovery, things did not improve, Omalu himself became a target, the league rejected his claims, to them American Football is a religion and they would stop at nothing to ensure it thrived on. Although in the future the NFL must make drastic changes to ensure the sport can survive as the number of former athletes developing serious mental illnesses is increasing and disturbingly, the suicide toll is too. Troy Aikman, a renowned former NFL star for the Dallas Cowboys stated, “I have complete amnesia of the ’93 title game” and another former player, Bo Jackson, admitted “I would never have played football” if he had known the risks.
Subsequently, rugby has investigated the mental health of it players and measures have been taken to reduce head injury in the sport. Touched upon earlier, a petition was indeed created to ban contact rugby until the age of 18 to reduce the number of concussions in youth. However, I would argue this method of protecting players would actually do more harm than good due to the paramount fact that if you take away contact at a young age, players will be unable to improve and develop their contact technique, therefore leading to a higher risk of more serious injury when they later play contact at 18 and above, especially with the increasing size of players nowadays.
Finally, the most recent story regarding concussion has been related to football. Shocking to many as it is well known to possess little physicality, but in reality it is has had arguably just as bad effect on athletes as rugby due to the frequent collisions of the ball with players’ heads. The FA itself has promised to investigate this issue and ensure that the sport will improve in its safety regarding their players. Concussion is certainly a massive issue in the world of modern sport, and player-safety is rightly the top priority of all sporting bodies and authorities. Such stories and injuries take away from the beauty of such sports and need to be minimised as soon as possible.