Violent injury: just ‘part of the game’?

‘This is a barbaric game, this game is not for the weak. You play football, you understand that.’ Former gridiron player Marshall Faulk is blunt in his assessment of the violence involved in American football.

This year, for the first time, AFL players are banned from returning to the field if they are diagnosed with a concussion. The rule was rushed in three days before the season opener and it didn’t impress players like Carlton captain Chris Judd who rebuffed, ‘You’ll just never get anyone concussed anymore.’ He’s probably right – players may get concussed, but the new rule will be a disincentive for doctors to diagnose it. The rule isn’t accompanied by any guidelines for diagnosis or independent doctors’ rules to keep team physicians accountable. But nonetheless, it’s clear the AFL felt it had to do something.

News coming out of the US on the long-term effects of football head injuries is horrific. Former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest last month after he suspected he was suffering long-term brain damage. He left behind clear instructions for his brain to be donated to the NFL’s brain bank for research purposes. Duerson’s death sent shockwaves through the NFL and was a wake-up call to football codes all over the world to take brain injuries more seriously.

Unfortunately Duerson was only the latest in a long line of NFL players who have suffered from the effects of a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The disease is caused by repetitive head trauma and displays symptoms such as depression, erratic behaviour and premature memory impairment. In 2008, Tom McHale was found dead at forty-five from a drug overdose after battling years of addiction. Before him Andre Waters and John Grimsley both died of suspected suicides. The symptoms of CTE eventually progress into full-blown dementia. It can only be diagnosed posthumously and so far, almost all NFL players examined in the NFL brain bank study at Boston University had the disease.

A separate study of retired NFL players found that 6.1% of retired players over fifty had been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other memory-related disease – five times more than the general population of men over fifty.

Such controversy has meant that the NFL leads the world in rules changes to prevent head injuries. Not only do players in the NFL have to sit out the game if they are concussed but also if they have less serious head injuries and can’t pass the NFL’s health test. The NFL also provides independent neurological consultants to examine players with suspected head injuries to prevent the issues of under-diagnosis that concern Chris Judd. Some states in the US even have laws which force coaches to refer young players to a doctor if they have suspected head injuries. Recently the NFL has introduced harsher penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits.

In Australia, the AFL, ARU and NRL have made a number of rules changes to minimize head and neck injuries. Before the concussion rule, they tried the ‘head down over the ball’ rule in AFL, the spear tackle and head-butting rules in NRL, banning gang tackles and shoulder charges in rugby and tougher penalties in all codes. The AFL is the first to try the concussion rule and reduce the number of interchanges to slow the game down. Rugby codes are already discussing the concussion rule and expected to follow suit.

Adrian Anderson, the AFL’s General Manager of Football Operations, says that rules changes are working and that head and neck injuries are at the lowest on record. But after watching the five concussions or serious head blows which occurred in Round 1 and considering that at time of writing, 116 AFL players are on the injury list, I find this very hard to believe.

The truth is that football is still as violent as ever. While the rules changes are attempting to slow down the play, players are encouraged to get bigger and hit harder. It’s these big hits that get replayed and used to advertise the game, especially in rugby league.

Players do what they’re told by coaches and are under pressure to win by brute force when necessary. As a result, football continues to be extremely dangerous despite the rules changes.

According to Manly hooker Matt Ballin who suffered a concussion in his first NRL game this year, it’s all in a day’s work. ‘It’s a tough game, you’ve got to expect a few hits and injuries. It’s a contact game and you don’t want to go out and injure players but we always know it’s going to happen from time to time.’ So is it just all part of the game? Or is it possible to have a game that is both entertaining and enjoyable to play without using young people’s bodies as consumer products, to be tossed away when they are broken at the end of the season?

Sean Gregory from Time magazine thinks that ‘the boxing analogy is fitting’. Gregory’s argument is that (American) football can’t be steered off its violent course. He believes that eventually it will be up to fans and parents to decide for themselves whether football is too violent for the mainstream. They’ll have to consider whether the average 950 blows to the head that a college footballer takes in a season is a good investment in their child’s future and fun Friday night entertainment.

Players and parents who register their children with a football club generally do understand the risks, though more could be done to make the effects of brain injury explicit. In addition to this, football administrative bodies and team owners have a responsibility to look after their players.

At the moment, players’ bodies are thrown around for all their worth and then delisted when they’re not useful to win football games. Daniel Bell, who is only 25-years-old, is already seeing the effects of multiple head injuries during his years playing Australian Rules football. He is entitled to claim half of his last AFL contract salary in compensation and is doing so at the moment with the help of the Players’ Association. The amount he is claiming will be under $100 000, according to the Age.

The process for claiming compensation is strict and claims must be lodged within six months from the player’s final contract. But it’s worth noting that symptoms of CTE develop over time and can be degenerative, so players may not realize the seriousness of their injuries until it is too late.

Bell suffers memory loss, poor concentration and blurred vision. The amount he has lost by not being able to perform at his peak on the football field and in other workplaces will almost certainly be more than $100 000. In any other workplace, an injury such as this would attract higher compensation, especially if Bell suffers an ongoing problem with his work capacity. But as is so often the case in sport, players walk a fine line between being professionals and being expected to accept poor treatment because they are apparently lucky enough to be doing what they love.

According to a recent Age newspaper poll, 88% of respondents thought that AFL players who suffer severe concussion should be banned from playing the following week. Fans care about the players they watch and it looks like Gregory’s boxing analogy may be coming true. But football administration bodies can be doing much more to look after their players. A national insurance scheme that properly compensates injured players at any time their symptoms present would be a good start.

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  1. Interesting article. On a related topic, how do those new ultra-violent martial arts contests — UFC and the rest — handle the question of injuries? They’re both incredibly popular and incredibly violent, and so the topic must come up. Do fighters get compensation? Do they ever sue?

  2. Well UFC fighters don’t even have a union so they’re in a worse position than AFL, NFL players and the like. They also have no national insurance coverage which, you would assume, would be addressed by a union if it existed. Of course in the US this means they have to take out their own insurance. There have been cases reported of UFC fighters who don’t have health insurance electing not to have surgery on injuries acquired during a fight because they can’t afford it.

  3. Hi Rebecca, Thanks for your blog and welcome to the Overland blogosphere. Never thought I’d be reading about NFL on Overland!

    I wonder if there is something more at play here (if you’ll excuse that dreadful, unintended pun) other than just people’s bodies being used as ‘consumer products to be tossed away’. This isn’t the sort of stuff that is limited to professional sport, if you watch a game of amateur football, any code (especially NFL) players tend to play as if everything is on the line – no matter what the risk to their bodies. I remember seeing Richard Glover and John Dale at last year’s Syd Writers’ Fest discussing the incredible, pure joy they felt (particularly in younger days) when hurling their bodies violently at each other and at the ground. There seems to be something innate in many male brains that loves this sort of thing. (Undoubtably some female brains also, def don’t want to offend any lady rugby players who are reading).

    That said, it is undoubtable that professional sports codes exploit this. Yet part of me thinks that, as with boxing, it’s a risk that players are aware of and accept when they play. The other part of me remembers the 17 yr old at my school who died instantly from a big tackle during a rugby game.

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