The debate about what needs to be done to better protect sportspeople has been dominated by rugby’s efforts to minimise the risk of concussion.
That sport has just recently changed its rules around the tackle, and first impressions suggest the change has had a positive impact on both how the game is played and the potentially dangerous mano a mano culture around the tackle.
Rugby had no option but to try to better protect players. Our deepening understanding of the long-term consequences of concussion, especially repeated concussion, meant the smelling-salts and magic-sponge cures were, like the three-point try, consigned to history. Science and medicine replaced optimism and bravado.
Those issues were aired in recent weeks, when South African World Cup winner, Joost van der Westhuizen, died, aged just 45, after a long battle with motor neurone disease. He was a fearless, abrasive player and this prompted a question: would he ever have had to endure that terrible disease had he not been involved in a high-contact, repeat-collision sport?
Just as it was impossible to prove or disprove that the Parkinson’s Disease that finally killed Muhammed Ali was caused by boxing, the van der Westhuizen question can be little more than a suspicion, albeit a gnawing one.
However, there is no longer any suspicion around the very questionable toll professional rugby exacts on players. One simple example suffices. Since Keith Wood retired, in 2003, the vast majority of his successors at Munster have had to retire prematurely, because of one injury or another. That is an irrefutable and powerful argument that deserves a response.
However, rugby is not the only sport that has acknowledged that we seem to have reached a tipping point of sorts; that players have become bigger, heavier, and more powerful and capable of generating a new level of destructive force.
This week, Dr Kevin Moran, the Donegal football team’s doctor, warned that players were incurring injuries, during games, that could be compared to those suffered in a car crash.
He, like his rugby counterparts, pointed out that footballers are getting bigger and stronger and, as a result, the GAA now sees the kind of collision injuries once thought confined to rugby. It would be foolish to ignore this alarm bell.
A consultant surgeon, Dr Moran is the concussion expert on the GAA’s medical, scientific, and welfare (MSW) committee and he has suggested that referees be empowered to send players from the field, if they believe the player has suffered a serious injury.
In a rational world, that seems a sensible suggestion, but in the fevered atmosphere of a Junior B football derby, it would require a certain kind of bravery to send off a local hero, even if they are obviously stressed and diminished by injury. Rugby referees already have that authority and for them it is seen more as an obligation that an option.
One of the great attractions — and qualities — of sport is risk, but that does not mean we should put players’ welfare in jeopardy for our entertainment. New circumstances require new rules.
One solution that might take some of the power and sting out of all games would be a change of rules banning tactical substitutions.
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