Off the Ball: Time to take heads out of sand on concussion issue
Players risk serious injury or death unless we change culture of leaving victims on battlefield
Throughout the closing stages of Sunday's All-Ireland final I was glancing regularly at Dublin's Rory O'Carroll and feeling a deep unease. The Kilmacud defender was exhibiting all the symptoms of concussion following his collision with Enda Varley.
Paul Flynn explained his move to defence at the game's end after the match: "Poor old Rory got knocked out so he didn't have a clue where he was. You just do what you have to do for the team and that's all that matters." For Flynn, that meant a rare stint in the full-back line. For O'Carroll, it was an infinitely more serious issue.
Ironically, over the past few years, O'Carroll has fronted a campaign for Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) Ireland. He is more aware than most of the risks of concussion. ABI Ireland spokeswoman Karen Boyle has spoken about the dangers of playing with a concussion: "It's not about getting another hit to the head, just receiving something like a heavy shoulder substantially increases the effects of a concussion".
This was a game with lots of heavy shoulders and heavy hits. But O'Carroll's team-mates needed him. They were already carrying Eoghan O'Gara, who had done a hamstring.
Jim Gavin said he only realised O'Carroll was concussed after the game. Asked should he have stayed on, he replied: "No, if a player is concussed he should have been off. If we had known the extent of Rory's injury he would have been off, but for a guy who they said had concussion afterwards, he seemed to play well." He said Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper had also been concussed during the game, with the latter taken off right afterwards.
ABI CEO Barbara O'Connell has weighed in on what happened. "The fear for Rory, or any player who plays on while concussed, is the risk of a second hit resulting in the catastrophe of second impact syndrome, which we saw 14-year-old Ben Robinson die of earlier this month. Any player feeling dazed, or experiencing any concussion symptoms following a hit to the head, must be removed from play immediately and not return to play until symptom-free."
The prospect of second impact syndrome in Croke Park is an utterly horrific one. Invariably in these instances, the player wants to continue. Perspective diminishes. There is a perceived obligation to team-mates.
Judgment may be impaired. Clearly, the choice needs to be taken out of a player's hands. A recent ABI Ireland-GPA survey revealed that of players surveyed who had suffered concussion, 58pc continued to play. Of these, 42pc didn't remember the rest of the game. The information is readily available, yet the culture remains intact.
Would O'Carroll have departed an O'Byrne Cup match? Inevitably. The final 10 minutes of an All-Ireland final? No chance. The desire to win outweighed logic, common sense and player welfare. These are amateur players with families and careers and a world beyond sport. They need to be protected and to protect themselves.
That didn't happen on Sunday.