JACK ANDERSON: Is there a danger competitive sport will need health warning?

The 2018 Australian rugby league (NRL) Grand Final took place on Sunday.

The Sydney Roosters comfortably beat the pre-game favourites, the Melbourne Storm. The build-up to the game was dominated by two events, both of which demonstrated the sometimes dangerously skewed ethics of elite sport.

The first involved the availability of Melbourne Storm’s star full-back, Billy Slater. In the preliminary (semi) final against Cronulla Sharks, Slater was cited for a shoulder charge in making a try-saving tackle. The NRL judiciary subsequently cleared Slater permitting him to take part in the NRL final, his last game of rugby league.

The decision was broadly welcomed within the game and yet there was one forceful, dissenting voice. In 2015 in Queensland, a semi-professional player called James Ackerman died days after a shoulder charge tackle in a game.

In the aftermath of the game and the coronial inquest, Ackerman’s family committed themselves to lobbying rugby league authorities throughout Australia to uphold their duty of care and rid the game of the shoulder charge.

In the aftermath of Slater’s acquittal, Ackerman’s brother Andrew spoke out, acknowledging that there was nothing malicious in Slater’s actions. He said, nevertheless, that his family was “insulted” by the NRL’s decision. 

Posting a picture of his brother on life support on a hospital bed, Andrew Ackerman said simply: “Rugby League is just a game, life is not!!” Ackerman’s plea only briefly stilled the whirlwind of media coverage surrounding the NRL Grand Final.

Indeed, the Slater story was surpassed by speculation surrounding the availability of Roosters star, Cooper Cronk. Cronk, who had featured on multiple title-winning teams for the Storm but had controversially transferred to the Roosters at the end of last season, had apparently torn a shoulder rotator cuff in the other semi-final.

Updates by Roosters’ medical personnel on the extent of the shoulder cuff injury and the frequency of injections he might need to play, only added to the ebb and flow of speculation.

Cronk played all but two minutes of the final. He hardly touched the ball but was given huge credit for his tactical organisation of his teammates throughout the game. It transpired that his shoulder cuff had not been torn but that he had played with a 15cm break in his shoulder blade.

Cronk was lauded in the Australian media for his bravery and for joining other rugby league legends who in the past had “played hurt”.

There is no doubting Cronk’s personal courage, yet in what other walk of life would an employee be asked to risk their health to such an extent? Serious questions must be asked of the club and its medical staff. And generally, what does it say about the ethical norms of a sport where playing hurt is seen as legendary?

In an era where many contact sports, rugby league included, are concerned about concussion and chronic injury to players, the Cronk situation must not be repeated.

The NRL itself has recognised this, saying that in future, clubs will be obliged to give full disclosure on the extent of a player’s injury. The approach to be taken is similar to that which applies in America football where all NFL clubs must abide by a Personnel Injury Report Policy, obliging them to give the NFL public (and the betting markets) transparent, up-to-date information on players’ fitness and injury status.

The above reveals a fundamental legal tension in modern sport: the duty on the regulator of sport to intervene to protect its clubs and players from themselves. In other words, many coaches, clubs or sporting entities are now so tightly wrapped in a “win-at-all-costs” mentality, that the short-term welfare of players is deemed of secondary concern. Two pertinent examples come to mind.

First, after a woeful Summer Olympics in 1996, in which it won only one gold medal, Britain decided to invest lottery money but link the funding of sports bodies to medal success by athletes. By one measure the plan was successful: Britain came second on the medal table for the Rio Olympics.

A host of independent investigations since into systemic bullying and psychological distress across various British sports, including one in which British Cycling was taken to court by Jess Varnish for unfair dismissal and discrimination, has forced UK Sport to reflect. 

Was their policy of athlete funding for medals programme no more than a ‘medal before athlete welfare’ policy?

The second example of this win-at-all-costs mentality moves from detrimental psychological impact to the physical, and even fatal.

In June, a 19-year-old American college (NCAA) football player, Jordan McNair, died as a result of exertional heatstroke brought on by a strenuous, pre-season training session for the University of Maryland. Legal compensation for McNair’s family is being pursued against the coaches and University.

According to research published in 2017, 33 NCAA football players have died in sport between 2000-2016. That research particularly focused on off-season training camps: purportedly prehabilitative in nature; it appears that excessive, unregulated and effectively year-round training has proved dangerous in the NCAA.

In the NCAA, the after-effect of such brutal training camps is called ‘Junction Boys Syndrome’, which relates to a notorious 10-day camp run by Texas A&M University coach Bear Bryant in 1954 and which, given the success of the team thereafter, became ingrained in college football culture for years.

While the above are extreme examples, they are worth keeping in mind when the excellent ESRI report by Elish Kelly and others on playing senior inter-county Gaelic games.

The report highlighted two worrying aspects.

First, almost half of players (48%) did not get the 8-10 hours sleep recommended for athletes on a pitch-based training day (rising to two out of every three GAA players who live outside their home county).

Injury rates are higher among those players who get seven or fewer hours sleep. Further, the ESRI report indicated that low sleep levels might be affecting players’ mental wellbeing which is slightly lower than that found in the general population.

Second, 37% of players often trained or played with their inter-county team while injured — 44% felt pressurised to play a senior inter-county game when injured, 54% said they had received medication to assist them to play a senior inter-county match while injured.

When asked who made the final decision within the inter-county team setup as to whether to play while injured, 49% said they made the call with the management and medical team aware of the injury. 

While 29% simply made the final call themselves with the management/medical team being unaware of their injury. In short, well over three-quarters of inter-county GAA players essentially made the final call as to whether to play a game while injured.

The ESRI has rightly said that more research is needed into the long-term implications for GAA player welfare arising from such “final calls”.

There are also immediate insurance and legal risks involved with the current situation.

Some will dismiss the above as unduly alarmist but the ESRI report is clear and the GAA and GPA should be commended for funding it.

The question is what to do now.

The ESRI report makes it expressly clear that players are overwhelmingly (83%) satisfied with their decision to play inter-county. 

The ESRI report can also be read to imply that pride in county/love of parish may not for much longer sustain or justify the time and physical commitments that go into meeting the demands of the current GAA season.

Or to quote the late and great Roger Bannister, who medically and athletically knew a thing or two about pushing yourself to your limits: “The notion that courage and esprit de corps can somehow defeat the principles of physiology is not only wrong but dangerously wrong.”

Jack Anderson is professor of sports law at the University of Melbourne.


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