Concussions in sport are becoming an ever growing topic in a world where the safety of athletes is finally being put first.

Concussions are defined by a complex pathophysiological process that affects the brain, typically induced by trauma to the brain or, in lay terms; repeatedly hitting your head causing damage to what is inside it.

For years, sports’ governing bodies have ignored the scientific evidence behind this reoccurring phenomenon.

The NFL in particular has come under serious scrutiny in recent years due to its lack of action taken to prevent concussions in the game and the American football body has paid the price for this; $1 billion dollars’ worth to be exact.

After a lengthy court battle, in 2015, the U.S Supreme Court withheld the terms of a concussion-related settlement between the National Football League and more than 20,000 retired players. 

The settlement will pay medical benefits to players who suffered concussion and related injuries which include dementia and parkinson’s disease. The Associated Press reported at the time that the NFL estimates 6,000 former players, “could develop Alzheimer’s disease or moderate dementia”.

Rugby’s bodies have also been slow to catch on but, have since taken more action to prevent concussion.

New rules have been implemented which take a zero tolerance stance on high tackling- any swaying from this can result in an automatic yellow/red card- depending on the referee.

The IRFU has implemented a new system for dealing with concussions which follow four steps: Stop, rest, inform, return.

In their guidelines, a player, no matter what age, if thought to be concussed must rest for 14 days minimum and go through ‘graduate to return to play’ (GRTP) protocol which takes eight days.

Plus, each team must now have independent doctors to assess players who are thought to have a head injury.

This is a far cry from the days where former international Paul O’Connell claimed he played half the game barely being able to see.

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Irish rugby legend Paul O’Connell suffered a concussion on his international debut, and continued to play on

In his international debut in the Six Nations, O’Connell recalls running towards Simon Easterby and then being ‘zapped’ like a TV screen and then turned back on 17 minutes later.

I’ve seen the missing minutes back and it’s the strangest feeling, remembering none of it when you’re watching yourself scoring a try for your country on your debut.” O’Connell says as a stark reminder of how serious this injury is.

But, it took fifteen more minutes to take O’Connell off in that game, having refused the first time around- that luxury of refusing has been stripped and the decision no longer requires the player’s permission.

Concussion in these sports are much more obvious and have had much wider discussions around them than others however.

Much like the discussions surrounding drug use, soccer has avoided it very well. The argument against the potential that footballers are using performance enhancing drugs (PED’s) is that it requires more natural talent than the endurance sports you’d normally associate PED’s with.

With concussion, FIFA, the FA and UEFA have relied on the argument that concussion only occurs in sports in which you are repeatedly hitting your head. If in doubt sit them out” is the slogan the FA have went for; Nothing about prevention, or proper medical care- base your decision on the natural instinct of doubt.

In 2015, Professor K Fields, an associate professor of communication at the University of Colorado-Denver, published a study surrounding concussions in High School Soccer in America. The study found that rates of concussions in girls’ and boys’ soccer had risen over the nine-year study period. Around 53% of concussions in girls and 69% in boys were because of physical contact between players.

This was helpful for the FA as it allowed them to ignore the fact that heading the ball repeatedly had a direct link to concussions.

However, a more recent study by the journal ‘Neurology’ found that players in the group that headed the ball most were three times more likely to have symptoms than those who headed the ball least.

Concussions

Arsenal’s Nacho Monreal heading the ball away

The study also recorded the amount of times players headed the ball which came to an average of 125 times in two weeks of football.

The results of the study done on adults makes you question the lasting effects on adults, but what happens when it’s an eight-year old heading the ball that amount of times?

In rugby, children are not allowed to play contact until they are u10 level- so could we see the same being implemented to soccer?

The argument against this is hindered by the fact heading is a big part of the game and a skill that must be taught at base level.

The very mention of non-contact soccer would be laughed at in some circles- yet, up until u-10 level are they really missing out on much? How is preventing a nine-year-old from taking part in physical encounters going to impact his strength when he/she is 19?

Many already believe that English underage systems are developing players too young as it is, so the potential of having no contact for the first two years doesn’t sound too outlandish.

In these two years, coaches could perfect basic techniques like passing and tackling properly and help prevent the physical encounters that have also been linked with concussion.

In a world where safety first has been put in the same category as the ‘snowflake generation’, these changes would be difficult to make- but, in the end, it could lead to safer and more technically gifted players

Enda Coll

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