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It's time to use our heads to tackle brain injury in sport

The subject of the film 'Concussion' wants to promote safety, but he has a fight on his hands, writes George Hook


CAMPAIGN: Forensic pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu highlighted concussion in sport. Photo: Julien Behal

CAMPAIGN: Forensic pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu highlighted concussion in sport. Photo: Julien Behal

CAMPAIGN: Forensic pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu highlighted concussion in sport. Photo: Julien Behal

Last week, as part of its MyHealth series, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland had a public lecture entitled Knocking Out Concussion - with one very special guest.

Dr Bennet Omalu hails from the United States, and his life and medical research inspired the movie Concussion, which starred Will Smith.

Following the lecture, medical representatives from the FAI, the GAA and the IRFU joined a discussion panel which also included Aisling Daly (retired professional mixed martial arts fighter and founder of Safe MMA Ireland) and Bernard Jackman, the former Irish international rugby player.

The marketing literature featured this paragraph: "The topic of concussion in sport has caused a great deal of discussion in recent years and provoked extensive debate. How can players protect themselves against concussion? What are the consequences of injuries of this kind? How can we make high-contact sports safer?"

If the full house of more than 400 people expected answers to the questions posed above, then they were sadly mistaken. The governing bodies demonstrated the same denial that the NFL in America had shown when Dr Omalu presented his research.

But forensic pathologist Dr Omalu did himself no favours in his presentation. One got the sense that he thought he was playing Will Smith, but his campaign has not been bad for him financially, as his net worth has been estimated in some journals at $710m.

His suggestion that contact sport should not be played by children under the age of 18 was never going to fly and gave the opportunity of the panellists to avoid answering any of the key issues about concussion in sport.

Instead, they batted away the questions from the moderator, before the audience was given a small window towards the end of the event to make its voice heard. The format did not allow the panellists to be challenged on their views, so the spokespeople trotted out a succession of cliches, which sounded as if they had been coached by their PR advisers.

There were some astonishing suggestions from the doctors on the panel. Soccer seemed unaware of the vast amount of research done on the dangers of heading the ball by youngsters. A child's brain forms a disproportionate part of its bodyweight and is much more liable to damage.

The distinguished panellist obviously did not realise that a substantial number of England's 1966 World Cup winning squad have died or are currently suffering from dementia.

Perhaps he had not noticed the coroner's report into the death of Jeff Astle, the greatest header of the of the ball in the English game. At the inquest, it was found that the former player had died in front of his family, aged 59, from repeated blows to head caused by heading the ball.

There was a suggestion that little research has been done on the issue of heading the ball. Perhaps the FAI should contact Robert Cantu, professor of neurosurgery at the Boston University School of Medicine.

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In an interview with the Scientific American he said: "Our findings and the findings of other researchers show that heading a soccer ball can contribute to neurodegenerative problems. There have also been studies where researchers compared soccer players to swimmers, and swimmers' brains look perfectly normal, while the soccer players' brains had abnormalities in their white matter fibre tracts."

The GAA seemed to think it was not a problem for their sport, despite the fact that at an Acquired Brain Injury Ireland conference, inter-county players attested to a lack of knowledge of the dangers.

It was shown that in the full glare of a packed attendance at Croke Park, a player was allowed to stay on the pitch when he seemed not to know which end was up.

However, rugby, which should have been in the dock, was allowed to escape without a stain on its escutcheon. Dr Omalu had delivered a lecture without tailoring it to an Irish audience and understandably showed a lack of specific knowledge.

The IRFU drove a coach and four through the gaps and came away smelling of roses as it avoiding answering any questions and was not challenged where it made assertions that were not entirely correct. Thousands of 11-year-olds around the country must have been surprised to learn that the full 15-a-side game is not played before age 14.

Similarly, coaches would have been scratching their heads to find the nine amendments to the laws intended to make the game safer for underage rugby players.

Incredibly, Bernard Jackman, whose book Blue Blood told of his battles with concussion and the efforts players make to pass the tests to continue playing, made for frightening reading.

He appeared to have a change of heart at the lecture, suggesting that in rugby, there was now less contact as "players attempt to avoid contact". Obviously, Jackman has been watching a different game to the rest of us.

The evening was a rerun of the movie as the brave doctor, armed with pages and pictures of research, battled fruitlessly against the entrenched views of the sporting organisations, that were in denial.

Sport today is big business and the organisers are beholden to television and advertisers. The NFL and the cigarette industry denied the facts to the very end. For American football, it ultimately cost the League one billion dollars and multiples of that for the tobacco giants.

Young men and women involved in contact sport need a Bennet Omalu to fight their case on this side of the Atlantic. We are seeing the first stirrings of revolt.

Former rugby international Dr Barry O'Driscoll resigned as medical adviser to the IRB in 2012. World Rugby's own independent adviser on concussion, Professor Willie Stewart, is considering his position, as he stated that "the amount of brain injuries that are happening is simply unacceptable". And Dr Colin Doherty, lecturer in neuroscience at TCD, suggested that "the IRFU has its head in the sand on the issue".

As I walked along St Stephen's Green after the lecture, I remembered young Ben Robinson. Ben was 14 when he died from brain injuries inflicted while playing rugby union for his school, Carrickfergus Grammar, against Dalriada.

I am afraid that more young men and women must die before brain trauma in sport is taken seriously.

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