If national governing bodies (NGBs) are to provide the correct information to their sport’s participants and assure their players, players’ parents, and coaches that the game they play is safe, then having the ability to correctly manage medical issues such as concussion is vital to the development of their sport.
That is the view of a leading sports lawyer in Ireland and co-founder of the Sports Law Bar Association, Tim O’Connor BL, who made a presentation on “Concussion and Irish Sport” to the professional body’s inaugural Sports Law Conference in Dublin a fortnight ago.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, the Cork-based barrister spoke of his belief that good concussion management policies are in the interest of a thriving sport, its participants and organising bodies, from both a sporting and a legal point of view.
“Every sport needs its players playing and needs them to be happy and fit, so it’s in every sport’s interest for their participants and their parents to know that they are playing safely because it’s being managed, rather than people being afraid to play because they don’t know what might happen,” O’Connor said.
“It just makes sense, legal sense and sporting sense and very frequently the two are one and the same.”
O’Connor, who co-founded the SLBA with Robert McTernaghan BL and Paul McGarry among others, recognised the good work being done by the IRFU and Ireland’s other major sports but believes concussion is an issue that can affect non-collision sports.
And he feels that all sporting NGBs in Ireland not only need effective management policies but should be required to implement them.
“Concussion is an issue for all sports, not just collision sports.
“For instance, cricket has recently rolled out a new concussion policy.
“It should be a condition that any NGB getting a state grant should be able to show that they have effective and enforced concussion management protocols in order to receive that grant. And the quid pro quo should be that they must report back the data on player injuries and the risk factors because that would allow bodies like the HSE to see where to put resources to deal with them and these neurology issues, so everybody’s winning.
“This is doable. It’s a very simple, effective way of encouraging everyone to do the right thing.”
The IRFU’s revamped concussion guide provides an information wallet card for coaches, parents, players, and volunteers involved in amateur rugby and takes into account the latest medical advice from the fifth International Consensus Conference on Concussion in Sport, held in Berlin in October 2016.
It advised that those who have suffered a suspected or confirmed concussion should “after a 24-48 hour period of complete rest, players should return to normal every day activities and non-sport related light exercise as long as it does exacerbate the symptoms.”
The IRFU’s graduated return-to-play protocol durations of 23 days for players under 20 years of age and 21 days for players over 20 years of age remain the same but they will be allowed to do more low-risk activities and exercise in the first two weeks, as long as the activity does not exacerbate the symptoms.
The updated concussion protocols contains a guide to recognising the signs and symptoms of concussion, information on how to manage a player that has a suspected concussion, explains the graduated return-to-play protocols for players under 20 years of age and for players over 20 years of age and also includes a section which can be filled out by an adult present at the time of injury to assist appropriate handover of care.
“The Berlin guidelines have shown that it is important to return to normal, non-contact activity as soon as possible after a suspected concussion, whereas total rest can in fact exacerbate symptoms,” IRFU Medical Department Coordinator Mairead Liston said.
“This is not about rushing back into sporting activity but about doing normal activities and light exercise in order to aid recovery.”
The wallet-cards are to be distributed to clubs and schools around the country while a pdf version will be available for download from www.irishrugby.ie.
The new IRFU approach earned the praise of sports law barrister O’Connor, not just as an example of proper management policies but in making them available to rugby participants.
“Into the future, a sport doesn’t have to be perfect but you can’t make a sport more dangerous than it need be and if you can make a sport safer without changing its essence, then you should.
“There’s no excuse for any sport not to have proper concussion management policies and in fairness, sports are getting much better in this.
“I looked at the latest IRFU concussion protocols which were rolled out last week and it’s very good but as much as that it’s being publicised and even though we’re in the middle of a Six Nations, people are aware, and that’s a big thing.
“They’re making things easier, offering the wallet cards and directing people to the app, makes it easier for people to upskill and educate themselves, not just lawyers but parents and players and everybody else.
“That’s really good risk management, because it means you’re doing it right and you’re showing you’re doing it right. That’s something all sports should really be doing.”
’Connor recognises that not all Irish sporting NGBs have the means to produce and make available the sort of information this country’s more popular and revenue-generating sports can. But he has a solution.
“Some governing bodies might not have the same resources as the bigger sports but the Scottish government has rolled out a new Scottish state sport concussion policy this week.
“It’s really, really good and they could do an awful lot worse than look at that as an example of how sports can pool together and get a common concussion management system to benefit everyone and enable everyone to get the maximum return.
“It is a good example, a good baseline of how we could have a shared policy for sport it in Ireland.”
Much like the NGBs, part of the reason for O’Connor’s presentation on concussion at the Sports Law Conference was to raise awareness of the issues surrounding concussion.
“It’s not a need but perhaps an awareness that we’ve become more conscious of it. We’ve had to and it’s become more apparent that the medical side of things has become more aware with the amount of research coming out.”
Ongoing education is absolutely necessary, for the legal profession as much as sports, athletes, parents, and media, O’Connor said.
“It’s something that the consensus concussion policies stress all the way through, that everyone has a part to play, whether it’s players and officials, parents, everyone has a responsibility.”