Concussion in sport: the second round

If a week is a long time in politics, the fortnight since the initial Digital Media Culture and Sport Select Committee (DMCSSC) first oral evidence hearing in this new inquiry has passed with undue haste.  A second, and apparently final session (the recording of which be viewed here) on Tuesday 23 March was the Committee’s opportunity to hear from individual players and governing bodies. As a result the witness ‘team sheet’ was longer and more varied than the previous hearing which had involved clinical witnesses only. The committee’s intention is to consider concussion across all sports at all levels but its focus, perhaps inevitably, remains on football and rugby.

The hearing comprised three separate panels:

  • Monica Petrosino, TeamGB ice hockey player
  • Eleanor Furneaux, TeamGB skeleton bobsleigher
  • Dawn Astle, Jeff Astle Foundation
  • Chris Sutton, former professional footballer and now part of the Jeff Astle Foundation
  • Professor John Fairclough, Progressive Rugby
  • Kyran Bracken MBE, former England Rugby professional and now part of Progressive Rugby
  • Dr Charlotte Cowie, Chief Medical Officer, The Football Association
  • Dr Éanna Falvey, Chief Medical Officer, World Rugby
  • Dr Mike Loosemore, Chief Medical Officer, TeamGB boxing and TeamGB snow sports
  • Bill Sweeney, Chief Executive, Rugby Football Union

The personal impact of concussion

With personal, often emotional accounts, particularly so from Monica Petrosino, the committee heard the first two panellists’ views on: the state of play in each of the sports addressed, the apparently limited extent of education to players, coaches and parents, the personal concerns each former athlete has about their own future neurological health and on why there is a need for a speedy change to regulations.

All former athletes from the first two panels favoured someone other than a player making the decision about continued participation – whether in the moment of the game or in their career generally. The Team GB athletes both observed with hindsight, rather than regret, that they should not have tried to come back to their sport as quickly as they did following their injuries.

More generally, all advocated someone other than sports’ governing bodies taking charge of player welfare so that what they say are necessary changes could be brought about.  Former footballer Jeff Astle died in 2002 from degenerative brain disease and concern was expressed at the risk that the concussion “can would be kicked down the road” for another twenty years with no improvements. Whether delivery of that improvement should come from independent panels or from Government itself was a question left with the Committee.

Mr Bracken identified that different approaches could be adopted between the elite, professional sport (of rugby) and the amateur game (i.e. grass roots levels, in community clubs and schools). His view was that while  the core features of the sport were the same at both levels, different changes could be made now to each, for the benefit of all players.

A direct approach with governing bodies

With the final panel’s representation from national and world governing bodies, the approach and tone of the Committee changed. Exchanges with MPs became much more adversarial, causing one committee member to remark that she had “never heard such a defensive panel.” Three Members of the Committee were left speechless at various points; most notably when Dr Cowie was unable to confirm the FA’s annual budget for research, and when Dr Loosemore considered what he thought to be a small risk of head injury in amateur boxing as being acceptable when set against the wider benefit that children could gain from the sport.

Whilst the Committee’s call for evidence “will not consider material involved in ongoing legal proceedings” the direct question was asked by the chairman as to whether rugby could survive “NFL-style litigation.”  Adopting the style of Phil Bennett or more recently Tadhg Furlong, Mr Sweeney politely sidestepped the issue, citing an inability to respond due to the current litigation.  He was able to identify an annual budget spend of £350,000 since 2002 into injury surveillance and with ongoing research projects “into the millions.”  World Rugby also had its financial data to hand with research into HIAs of more than £5.5 million in the last 10 years, and with overall research into player welfare exceeding £10 million in the same period.

The route to report

With only a week to go before the close of written submissions, the direction of travel the Committee might take is still not clear. Members have requested written clarification on a number of points from this and the earlier session.  Concern has been expressed over a number of issues and we might expect a broad spectrum of written evidence, perhaps from sports other than football, rugby and boxing.

We might anticipate a report identifying the need for greater education, targeting schools, clubs and frontline medical staff, aimed at identifying potential concussions earlier and at addressing the potential consequences.

There might also be observations about further research and in particular where funding for those programmes might come from. Passing reference was made again to Gordon Taylor’s salary and to the last deal between Sky Sport and Premiership football, suggested to be some £4.4 billion.

On the issue of funding, it is probable there will be comment on player welfare funds, in the style of the NFL and more recently the AFL, which might offer some financial protection for past, current and future athletes. This sort of solution could be a feature of the Committee’s recommendations.

Although the Committee intends to address concussion across all sport, it is difficult to see how funding, whether for education, research or for player welfare, could be equalised across every sport. 

If it is the case that concussion from football is the same as concussion from rugby, or from ice hockey, or from skeleton and if the long term risks arising from concussion injuries are the same regardless of which sport caused them, will the expectation be that each sport should fund education, research and welfare equally? Or will politicians – whether this Committee in its report or the Government in its response – expect proportional representation?

Dr Loosemore observed his dual role for TeamGB boxing and TeamGB snowsports was a consequence of financial restrictions with neither sport able to afford their own Chief Medical Officer.  If niche / less populist sports already struggle to appoint and fund a dedicated CMO, just how realistic would it be to expect from them to contribute to ideas such as a national development of concussion education and welfare programmes?

American Speedskater and Olympian gold medallist Eric Heiden is attributed as the originator of the phrase that “sports and politics don’t mix.”  One interpretation of the closing panel session might be they don’t collide too well either. 

Written by David Spencer, Partner at BLM

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