Head injuries in collision sport: A silent killer?

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Two of the roughest sports out there are currently all over the media. With the Super Bowl having just passed, and the Six Nations ongoing, American football and rugby are on everybody’s lips. Which makes sense, as sport is a light-hearted and unproblematic interest most people share. I mean, who doesn’t love the feeling of triumph and pride when your team wins?

But an aspect of sport that is often neglected is the recurrent physical trauma players experience. Former Scotland rugby union captain Kelly Brown recently said ‘every tackle, carry, breakdown is almost like a car crash. Big men smashing into each other. The sheer force can never be doubted.’ With players being exposed to extreme force like this in every match, injuries are inevitable. But are they just part of the game?

an aspect of sport that is often neglected is the recurrent physical trauma players experience

At first glance, it seems impossible to eliminate the risk of injury in sports without ruining the game itself. The problem is that these injuries pose larger dangers to the players than simply the threat of cauliflower ears for rugby players, or a mild concussion here or there.

According to the British Journal of Sports medicine, injuries to the head and neck are the most frequent sports injuries, and they happen a lot. In 2017, the NFL released shocking injury data showing that players saw a record 291 concussions over the course of the season. What’s even more worrying is that these were only the concussions that were actually diagnosed.

The amount of concussions is nothing short of alarming. And this is not even the worst part. In the long-term, concussions and other head injuries can often lead to more serious consequences. Many retired NFL players who have suffered concussions have been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression or even Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease of the brain caused by repeated trauma to the head.

Many retired NFL players who have suffered concussions have been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression or even Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

CTE itself can bring on all of the above-mentioned disorders, as well as suicidal tendencies, motor neuron disease, and aggressive, impulsive behaviour which can pose a serious threat to those around the affected individual. In 2012 the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his wife before later killing himself in front of team officials, and in the same year Hall of Famer Junior Seau committed suicide. Both were found to have suffered from CTE, and each of their families pursued claims in court against the NFL.

The problem is endemic; a study in 2017 diagnosed 99% of deceased NFL players’ brains donated to research with CTE. This is how common it is. It’s not in extraordinary circumstances that this happens. It’s no freak accident. It’s an extremely common problem in collision sports that still exists today.

head injuries in collision sports are not just minor inconveniences, they’re a major threat to the affected players’ health

It’s clear to see that head injuries in collision sports are not just minor inconveniences, they’re a major threat to the affected players’ health, life quality, life span and psychological well-being. They can also pose a threat to their surroundings and the people around them. Head injuries are not something that can be pushed under the carpet. And although things have improved in recent years, with the NFL announcing a concussion initiative in 2016 and health monitors being implemented to spot potential concussions, instances of head injuries are still much too high.

Of course the risk of injury is something that can never be completely eliminated as it is, after all, part of the game. As long as there are players willing to participate and viewers wanting to watch, collision sports will continue along with the risks involved. It’s unrealistic to want to completely alter the structure of the game to eliminate the risk of head injury, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reduce it. The use of helmets in American football, for example, was not introduced until the start of the 20th century.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine recently stated that “many head injuries in athletes are the result of improper playing techniques and can be reduced by teaching proper skills and enforcing safety promoting rules. Improved conditioning (particularly of the neck), protective headgear and careful medical supervision of athletes will also minimise this type of injury.”

It’s clear that protective measures to minimize head injuries do exist, but are perhaps just not being implemented to a significant degree, likely due to the fear of not being accepted by sports fans and viewers.

Should the safety and well-being of our fellow human beings not be prioritised over the entertainment of others?

It’s hard to believe that, in 2019, the potential for serious, life-changing trauma is still prominent in sport. Should the safety and well-being of our fellow human beings not be prioritised over the entertainment of others? Real life isn’t a dystopian teen novel after all.

Illustration by Elena Onwochei-Garcia

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