In the morning of Tuesday 25 May Minister for Sport Nigel Huddleston MP appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee for the last of its oral evidence sessions in the concussion in sport inquiry. He gave an assured performance and offered some useful indications that his Department’s (DCMS) engagement on this important topic was covering very similar concerns to those of the Committee and was focused on the better coordination of medical research, the use of technology, and on education for amateur and elite players. My colleague David Spencer, BLM’s Head of Sport, has reported on the outcome of each of the previous oral evidence sessions, which you can read on the blog here.
One of the Minister’s themes in this final session, and a phrase he used deliberately on several occasions, was that the “onus of responsibility” here rests primarily with sports, by which he clearly meant governing bodies (GBs). For example, in responding to question on the need for full-time medical oversight and ongoing research he said: “I think this is such an important area that we need to make sure that the research is taking place. As I said, the onus of responsibility primarily sits with the sports and I expect and require them to put their hands in their pockets and fund research into concussion seriously and then share those results.”
He outlined his broad view that government essentially has a coordinating role, enabling information-sharing and the promotion of best practice. However, he didn’t shy from saying that he sees that government could, if required, bring pressure to bear on GBs to research the risks, to inform participants of them, to take steps to minimise unnecessary risks and to ensure properly informed consent to the risks of the game. When asked if he agreed with the evidence of a former athlete at a previous session that one sport’s concussion protocol “was a farce” he made it clear that government could work with GBs to tackle perceptions of that type.
The magnitude of Gordon Taylor’s £2m+ salary as PFA Chief Executive has been something of a touchstone during the inquiry’s evidence sessions and was mentioned yet again by the Committee chair. He observed that the PFA’s stated spend on concussion was barely 6 weeks of Mr Taylor’s salary. The Minister was not drawn into the specifics but instead observed that certain wealthy GBs ought to have “skin in the game”. Later, the even higher figure of £2.5bn, the total prize money in the Premier League, was mentioned by a Member in noting that clinical experts at an earlier hearing would have welcomed even £250,000 for research purposes. The MP wondered that as that was just 0.01% of the total prize money, perhaps wealthy clubs ought to pay more? The Minister replied that the point was well put and, perhaps more importantly, that he agreed.
The following seemed to me to be the main areas of detail covered during this session and look likely to be points of real substance in the Committee’s report and the ongoing DCMS’s work on sports-related concussion.
- Recognising that awareness of concussion risk and its treatment protocols have improved in the last decade or more but that more needs to be done.
- Coordinating medical research activities and plugging obvious research gaps, especially in women’s sport.
- Addressing the hard questions of funding and independence of research into sport-related concussion.
- Looking at regulatory matters such as the reporting of injuries and better overall data collection, including considering possible roles for HSE and/or IIAC.
- Striking a balance between putting in place proportionate approaches to concussion risk and preserving the fundamental nature of the sport in question.
- Being clear about the wider leadership role of governing bodies in improving what is done across all levels to address concussion risk realistically, transparently and to improve the culture of their sport.
It remains unclear when the Committee might publish the report and recommendations from what has been a fairly comprehensive inquiry into concussion in sport and one in which each evidence session has flagged some obvious issues to take forward as matters of priority. Aiming to produce the report in the six or seven weeks before the summer recess looks ambitious.
The Minister for Sport was very clear that the government welcomed the inquiry and would respond to the report. If the timing worked, he said it was quite possible that DCMS might be able issue a single document some time in the autumn which would combine summaries of its own activities and responses to the Committee’s recommendations.