Champions League

‘Caveman Thinking’: Football’s Stance on Concussion is Immoral 

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Michael Owen is about to speak. Has there ever been a phrase in the English language that gurantees something almost heroically stupid is about to follow. His list of hilarious, utterly ridiculous comments are enough to suggest that Chris Kamara is closer to being a public intellectual than we might think. These quotes include; ‘That’s a fantastic penalty, he’ll be gutted it went wide,’ ‘If Man City don’t score, they hardly ever win,’ and ‘If there’s a bit of rain about, it makes the surface a little wet.’ 

At half-time during the enthralling Champions League Round of 16 game between Ajax and Benfica, a discussion started with Owen and fellow BT pundit Chris Sutton after Lisandro Martinez and Nicolas Otamendi clashed heads. Martinez passed the on-field concussion test and ended up playing the full 90 minutes. Sutton was heavily critical of football’s concussion protocols and IFAB, the institution that effectively decides the rules of football. Sutton stated that ‘Player welfare isn’t put right within the game. He needs to come off the pitch to the sanctuary of the dressing room and get checked by an independent doctor. In the meantime, he is replaced by a temporary substitute so you are not numerically disadvantaged. It is common sense.’ 

Owen, with a monotone worthy of Father Ted, remonstrated that this was just bumps and bangs, to which Sutton quickly replied that Owen could not know this was not a concussion. Owen then trotted out the now familiar line that this will lead to everytime a player rolls around on the floor holding his leg, there’ll need a doctor to come on and see if it is broken. Sutton angrily shut him down by saying;  ‘Michael, that is the view of a caveman. Football needs to catch up.’

Sutton is right of course, football continues to abdicate responsibility in protecting players with their concussion protocols. Football is so far behind with concussion, that Ice Hockey and the NHL, a sport where you are literally allowed to scrap the opposition, has a set of protocols that puts football to shame. The same goes for the RFU, NHL and the MLB among others

It is almost as if football itself has a concussion, and has yet to wake up to the fact that this is a serious, complex injury that is not analogous to the dreaded metatarsal and requires a specific set of rules. 

Football, and sport generally, is a unique vocation in which players are routinely exposed to potential concussion impacts that is very rarely replicated in any other workplaces. Former professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia and related neurological diseases. The 22-month study by the University of Glasgow did not reveal whether repeated concussions was a direct cause. However, with the increasingly overwhelming evidence of the link between, CTE, repeated head impacts and concussion, it is clear that playing football has the potential to cause significant harm to player’s in later life. Which makes it all the more baffling and rage-inducing that football does not have on-pitch concussion protocols that match the progressive standards of other sports. 

Forcing club doctors to conduct concussion tests in the volcanic atmosphere of a stadium is clearly problematic. Firstly, while these doctors should, and no doubt will, act as medical practitioners first and club employees second, this creates space for natural bias, pressure and sometimes outright attacks from both players and managers

Secondly, in regards to Owen’s point about doctors coming on the pitch for every potential injury, the point of concussion substitutes is that the player will probably come back to the field. If a player is screaming in pain, pointing at their fibula peaking through their skin and giving them a wave, they are obviously not going to be able to return to the pitch. A potential concussion is not the same. You should take the player back to the dressing room, allow them time to recover slightly and give an independent doctor the best possible chance of diagnosing any potential injury. Say on the pitch the player might answer a couple of the concussion-test questions incorrectly because they feel under pressure or nervous, having them taken to a quiet, confidential area, a doctor will be able to assess whether this is concussion-related or just understandable mistakes.  

These changes to the protocols are simple, logical and now commonplace across many major sports. Yet football seems stuck in the past, unable to face up to it’s responsibilities towards player welfare and the inevitable backlash that will happen when something serious happens after a false concussion assessment. 

Without the implementation of these rules, we will continue to see the horrific images of David Luiz playing with blood literally streaming from his head after passing a concussion test, or Leeds’s Robin Koch playing on after a head collision, cutting his face but having to leave the pitch 15 minutes later. Football has signaled it will not change it’s protocols but it is only a matter of time before the blood is not flowing from the player’s head to the pitch but directly onto IFAB’s hands. 

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