Concussion and the slow demise of contact sport


Image: John Hain,

As you might know, one of my unlikely ‘hobbies’ is watching rugby league games on television. It’s as exciting as things get around here, especially if your team is winning. Once or twice a year we go to a live game (at least $100 admission for two).

The technology used to televise contact sport has led to a level of live scrutiny the game has never known before. Back in the day you could tackle someone and give him a ‘facial” (mashing your forearm into his face), and if the referee didn’t see it, you got away with an unsporting, illegal ‘dog act’.

The advent of The Bunker (a small team of referees armed with the technology to forensically replay on-field incidents), has changed the game forever. There is only one referee, and he/she can’t be in all places at once. That is why the Bunker alerted the referee to an incident last week where Parramatta Eels forward Reagan Campbell-Gillard slid his knees into the back of Titans hooker Chris Randall (who was already on the ground). It didn’t look good and the player on the ground was in apparent agony.

Campbell-Gillard was sent to the ‘Sin Bin’ and later suspended for four weeks over a grade three dangerous contact charge.

Repeated replays of such incidents prompt mothers (and fathers) around Australia to say, ‘no son of mine is playing that brutal sport.’ Then they sign them up for under-12s soccer, even though 22% of injuries in the round ball game are concussions.

Australia can’t be too far away from a class action brought by former contact sport players for whom repeated head injuries have left a legacy. There have been a few individual cases brought in Australia. Former Newcastle Knights winger James McManus eventually settled out of court after suing the National Rugby League (NRL).

One does wonder how much longer contact sports like rugby league and rugby union can be justified when there is so much evidence to show what repeated head trauma can do to an individual.

Research published in the British Medical Journal canvassed the extent of head injuries/concussions and the risk of under-reporting. The research found that 17.2% of Australian rugby league players suffered a concussion in the previous two years and did not report it to the coaching team or medical staff. About 22% of NRL first grade players admitted to not reporting at least one concussion during the 2018 and 2019 seasons. The most common reason was the player ‘not wanting to be ruled out of the game or training session’ (57.7%) and ‘not wanting to let down the coaches or teammates’ (23.1%).

Rugby league has changed immeasurably since I first started watching the game in the 1980s. Many rule changes occurred, technology worked its way into the game and now, it seems, an entire game is played with player welfare a priority. Back in the day, players commonly used their shoulders to tackle an opponent, usually resulting in the foresaid opponent being concussed and having to leave the field. Players who led with their shoulders inevitably spent time off the field having shoulder reconstructions. Even now, when shoulders are much less utilised than they were, it is not unusual to find a player in his mid-20s who has had two or even three reconstructions.

The shoulder charge is not the only banned ‘tackle’. There is the crusher tackle, the hip drop, third man in and any tackle involving contact with the head. The latter usually ends with a player being sent to the ‘sin bin’. This means the team is a man down for 10 minutes. This commonly leads to the good teams putting on 10 or even 20 points in the period where they have a numerical advantage.

You’d have to ask why rugby league players persist with high contact tackles which sports administrators have agreed are dangerous. At times it seems malicious. True, you might get sent off for 10 minutes, but the bloke you tackled into oblivion is going off for an HIA (head injury assessment) and will not return to the field. The player in the sin bin, perversely, is allowed to return to the field.

Since the tightening of concussion rules in 2016 a few players have retired prematurely because of repeated concussions or ‘head knocks’ as they were once known.

Many instances of high contact are accidental, such as head clashes (at times with your own teammate’s head). Others come from fatigue – the opponent has already beaten you, but you instinctively throw your tired arms up and hit him around the throat, chin, and head.

The NRL, the professional body which administers the game, has in recent years initiated a range of measures designed to protect players from repeated head injuries.

Any contact with the head, be it an accidental head clash, a careless or deliberate high tackle or the unconscious player’s head hitting the ground is reviewed. The Bunker can intervene and order a player off the field to be assessed by an independent doctor.

Typically, the injured player goes off for a mandatory 15-minute HIA. The player may pass the test and return to the match, but more often if it is graded category two or three the game is over for that player. If the contact is deemed serious he may be banned from playing for several weeks.

Some players seem prone to head injuries and in recent years there have been plenty of premature retirements. In the UK, law firms are leading two court challenges, one against World Rugby and another against the promoters of rugby league in England. In all there are some 350 former players involved, all alleging that the sports’ governing bodies failed to protect them from concussion and non-concussion injuries. They allege that these injuries caused various disorders including early onset dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s disease.

Despite an older study reporting that 23.2% of parents discouraged their children from playing rugby league, about 480,000 Australian adults, juniors and school children are engaged in the sport.

Speaking of school children (about 30,000 are involved in school programs every year), many will have reached adulthood thinking that sports betting is all part of the game. Sports betting has been legal in Australia since 1983. Lately there is much talk about placing constraints on the industry’s saturation advertising. So far the controversy has led to preposterous warnings after sports betting ads about the dangers of gambling addiction.

Gambling ads are a genuine issue given that NRL games were watched by 119 million viewers cumulatively over the 2022 season, an average of 620,000 viewers per game. The 53% increase in viewers on Channel Nine is reflected in a similar rise on Foxtel, with most games attracting 50,000 to 60,000 viewers.

The choice of betting types is large and varied. Punters can bet on the outcome of league games with novelty bets thrown in: first (and last) try scorer and in big games, man of the match, exact score, and exact winning margin. You cannot yet bet on which player will go off for an HIA, or which player will be sin binned, but never say never.

Australians have bet on stranger things.

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