Comment - Belittling concussion is not tough, it's dangerous
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane is the quintessential football man, a figure in the sport that is both admired and respected.
Football men are highly sought after commodities in football broadcasting because they know the game and its intricacies, and for the most part, they don’t need statistics, expected goals or advanced analytics to support or challenge what they see on the pitch.
They have eyes and ears as noted football man Eamon Dunphy said on RTE last week. They also have mouths too, often with sharp tongues found swirling around inside of them.
But of all the sharp tongues among the many football men on television, Keane's is arguably the sharpest.
The Corkonian’s cutting remarks on football’s theatrics and his attitude towards what he perceives as nonsense has made him one of the sport’s most popular pundits.
“Roy Keane is the best [pundit], because he’s got credibility and he literally doesn’t care what people think,” said former Arsenal striker and fellow pundit Ian Wright.
“When he does his punditry, what he says is most probably right, but he’s just brutally honest so people don’t like that.”
There’s a reason why Keane’s brutal honesty can be unsettling for some and it has a lot to do with the brutality and ignorance of some of his comments.
Keane’s remarks towards Robbie Keane’s pending availability for Ireland’s pivotal Euro 2016 qualifier with Germany in 2015 was an example of such brutality.
When asked whether he expected Ireland's all-time leading goalscorer to be available for selection following the birth of his child, Keane replied: "Well he didn’t have the baby did he? Unless he's breastfeeding he should be alright".
The wry quip sparked laughter among reporters in Abbottstown but it also raised questions about football’s dismissive attitude towards paternity leave.
Thankfully, Roy Keane is not the definitive voice of football, but as Wright alluded to in his praise of the former midfielder’s ability as a pundit, his credibility and standing in the game give his words power.
It’s why it’s unfortunate that he can be so loose with his choice of words on matters of substance, and not nonsense.
When addressing the issue of concussion in football on Tuesday following the concussion-related retirement of former Ireland striker Kevin Doyle last week, Keane had this to say:
“I suppose there is research ongoing with regard to concussion. If you're worried about the physical side of any sport, then play chess. It's part of the game, whether it's hurling or American Football.
“You see the rugby lads. When you cross the line, there is an element of risk involved. They all want to play but know the risk. I'm sure there is research. But there is a chance you might get hurt. It is part of the game.
“I was surprised when I read about it. He was involved in provisional squads. It's sad, he feels he made the right decisions.
“He's a decent guy and did well for Ireland. He's 34, felt he had a decent innings and maybe this is the right time. Health is your wealth as they say.
“I saw the statement which said he had one or two concussions. We mentioned risk and when you walk on to a football pitch, there is an element of risk. He feels it is right for him.
“It is part of the game, players picking up injuries. He is a centre forward, and he gets a few knocks from centre-backs, I'm sure he has given out a few himself. It's a physical game.”
There is some truth involved in what Keane is saying although I do take issue with how he delivered his message.
Keane is right in the fact that if you are concerned about the physical aspects of a sport and the long term consequences that playing that sport may have on your health, and therein your wealth as he highlighted, you should consider walking away.
The effects that the accumulation of repeated concussion can have in promoting diseases such as dementia, alzheimer’s and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) are well-documented, and if you have lingering concerns about those issues, it may affect your performance on the field, but that is not the issue here.
The issue here is Keane’s disparaging reference towards chess and how it is an alternative to sports that are facing the issue of concussion. It’s ironic that he chose chess, a sport that requires intelligence, to expand on a point that exuded a lack of it.
Chess is a sport that has traditionally been used by some quarters to make fun of those who may lack the athleticism to excel in other sports.
Chess traditionally has a connotation of being old and boring, the opposite of the traits needed to succeed in football; youth and personality.
Keane has personality, an abundance of it, and he's brutally honest, it’s what he’s admired so much, but he can also be dismissive, and it’s why he’s often criticised.
But throughout his tenure with the Irish team, both Keane and Ireland manager Martin O’Neill have used humour to try and deflect certain issues, which is ironic, given that some of the issues that they have tried to deflect were made significantly bigger by trying to joke about them.
But concussion is no joke. Kevin Doyle’s retirement was no laughing matter and neither was Dawn Astle’s appearance on Second Captains last week.
Astle appeared on the show to talk about concussion in football and the death of her father Jeff, who was a England football international who choked to death at her home at the age of 59.
The cause of his death was a degenerative brain disease that had first become apparent five years earlier. His coroner had found that the repeated minor traumas he had suffered during his football career had contributed to his death.
Dawn was emotional when talking about her father’s passing and she was angry at the FA and football for continuing to neglect an issue that had taken her father’s life.
In April 2015, she helped set up the Jeff Astle Foundation to raise awareness of brain injury in all forms of sport and to offer much needed support to those affected.
Awareness is raised through understanding an issue, not by belittling it. A point that is often forgotten at Irish football press conferences.