Concussion: The ticking time bomb
It's been a hard couple of weeks for the South African Rugby Union. Even more so for some other sporting codes in South Africa.
To be fair, rugby's reply to the decisions made, just showed how committed SARU is and how far we have come along.
But politics is not for me. I am confined to the everyday hustle like all other South Africans. I worry about paying bills, morning traffic and what's going to happen in the new season of my favourite series.
Like the majority of South Africans my immanent rugby concern goes about as far as the flyhalf position. Elton Jantjies is showing some fine form if you listen closely around braaivleis fires and office water coolers around South Africa. But he is carrying an injury. Pat Lambie is back though and that is about as much as I'll say about that!
But, in this column I want to discuss a ticking time bomb that's situated inside rugby.
It's so intertwined and part of rugby, that you can make the insensitive comparison to cancer. The malignant type. We know it's there, we just choose to ignore it.
Recently, the NFL (Gridiron or North American football) had to pay out US$1-billion to the NFL Players' Association. This was a class-action lawsuit stretching over more than a decade and involving hundreds of former players.
The reason? Concussion.
In summary, the lawsuit is compensation for players who are coping with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). It covers thousands of lawsuits and NFL retirees suffering and coping with these neurocognitive or neuromuscular symptoms.
The house of cards came tumbling down when a NFL representative testified in front of Congress and agreed that there is a connection between CTE and Football.
To protect them, the NFL has now taken the step to install fulltime, completely independent doctors next to the field. None of the staff (management or medical) of either team are allowed to communicate with them at all. Teams face hefty fines if they infringe this rule.
The sole purpose of these doctors is to look closely at all contact situations during a game. If they feel that a player might have had any head trauma they have the full right to pull him from the match. NO arguments, NO discussions. After a thorough investigation the independent Doctor will then determine the rest period for the player. And I am not talking days. It normally amounts to a couple of weeks. They are taking NO chances.
Or watch the Will Smith Movie called Concussion. It will give you a good idea how long this has been coming in American Football.
I can already hear the critics out there shouting "Profanus" and "rugby is not a sport for sissy's"!!
Agreed I would say. But is player welfare in the long-term really high priority at this stage in rugby?
Don't get me wrong. I am the first to stand in queue for hard physical rugby. I often complain about the interpretation of laws taking away from the game. Be it cleaning at the ruck or competing in the air.
Rugby players are warriors. If we don't protect them, they will literally put their lives on the line. And suffer the consequences in silence.
In any sport like boxing or MMA, the referee has the right to stop the match at any time he judges one of the competitors to be in danger. Once a competitor is knocked-out or the referee thinks that a significant blow has been taken, the match is over. It does not get restarted. Sure you have the 10-count in boxing, but that is only 10 seconds!
Now compare that to the current procedure in rugby. When a player receives a significant blow to the head he gets taken for a concussion assessment. The player has 10 minutes to return. 10 minutes!!!
In other contact sports like boxing or MMA if the referee calls the fight there is no recovery time!
Ninety-nine percent of the time you see the opponent that was knocked-out stand next to the referee for the decision two or three minutes later. She/he is fine then, but still had trauma to the brain and the contest is over.
Do you see where I am going here with the 10-minute concussion assessment?
And this is my main concern with current protocol in terms of head trauma in rugby.
No rugby player wants to leave the field. If you give them ample time to recover they will always state that they are fine and ready to continue. Only in extreme cases is it clear that the person that received the blow cannot continue. Normally because they have no idea where they are.
So during the Head Injury Assessment (HIA), there is a window of up to 10 minutes to recuperate.
Just two weeks ago I saw a player in the Currie Cup qualifiers get knocked out cold. It was so bad that he went limp and his arms stiffened like he was enduring an epileptic fit. The player went off but returned just before the 10 minutes was up. He is pivotal to that particular team. So it is easy to understand why there might have been a push for him to return to the field.
Just think back to the British and Irish Lions tour in Australia in 2013. Do you remember the head clash between George Smith and Richard Hibbard?
George got sparked so badly it was actually scary watching him as he tried to get back his senses. The worst – George Smith was allowed back onto the field later!
Have a look yourself at the video!
Looking at BokSmart and the effort SA Rugby make to get scientifically backed protocol in place is admirable. But the hard truth is that across the board the seriousness of head trauma is still not treated as high priority.
Stats taken from a BokSmart documents show that there has been 13 Catastrophic Traumatic Brian Injuries (TBI) from 2001 until 2014 across school and club rugby. These 13 resulted in disability or fatality.
You could argue that it's a low percentage compared to the numbers playing rugby. But it's 13 too many and I can tell you with certainty that there are many more cases not reported which played out negatively after a prolonged period of time.
And then I don't even want to imagine the amount of former players out there that suffers from depression, alcoholism, anxiety and memory that's starting to become a problem.
I'm not going to keep bubbling on. I just hope that SA Rugby/SARU and World Rugby take more serious steps to protect players before it's too late and a legal and financial bomb hits rugby.
A Billion Dollars might be a drop in the ocean for a big American corporation like the NFL, but I doubt World Rugby can take such a financial hit.
Unlike so many former players that are suffering from CTE, but keep on moving, rugby will definitely not survive the "blow".
By Ethienne Reynecke
* Ethienne Reynecke is a decorated hooker who played for, amongst others, the Lions, Stormers, Saracens, Connacht and Pau – which has seen him feature in 160-odd first-class matches.