The gloomy and unpleasant month of February has two things to recommend it, and one of them is that it all ends quickly. The other is that it brings with it the Six Nations. Since the championship starts in winter and ends in spring, it always feels like the harbinger of better things and in the meantime there is the welcome prospect of spending long weekend afternoons watching matches in the pub or at home in front of the TV. , or if you’re lucky, a trip to one of the grounds, maybe even a weekend in Paris or Rome. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. This year, the championship already feels diminished, tense and dangerous, like everything else.
It’s not just the lack of fans, the empty grounds, the closed pubs, bars and restaurants. These will be the first test matches since Steve Thompson, Alix Popham, Michael Lipman and two other former professionals revealed that they have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) or other post-concussion symptoms.
It gets worse. Popham tells me that behind the scenes more and more players have come forward to report symptoms, male and female, amateur and professional, in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. “What is scary is that the numbers are increasing every day.”
I discussed all of this with Peter Robinson last week. In the run-up to this year’s championship, I have spent more time chatting with doctors, patients and activists than with players and coaches. Peter’s 14-year-old son, Ben, died of second impact syndrome during a school rugby game in 2011, because he was allowed to continue playing after he was hit in the head. Peter still watches rugby. “But now I see it differently,” he says. “I enjoy it? I do not know.”
How much do you need to know about the damage sport can do before your enjoyment turns sour? How much do you need to know before you stop wanting to see it altogether? “Maybe now, with the latest on litigation, people are realizing how dangerous all of this is,” says Robinson.
Like many of the people I have talked to lately, Peter is convinced that the culture of the game must change, so that everyone involved is more aware of the risks. He is frustrated that the coverage of the topic is still so intermittent, that “when you have an incident on television, everyone talks about it for a week and then everything disappears again.”
The truth is that there are times when I turn it on and off myself. I suspect that almost everyone who watches the game has, because it is very difficult to reconcile our daily enjoyment with the growing body of evidence about the long-term damage it can cause to the men and women who play it. Too often, the easiest way is to ignore it, until you can’t.
Peter is not the only one making this argument, I have also heard something similar from many other people. Like Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who first diagnosed CTE in retired football player Mike Webster’s brain. “What we have to do is engage with culture,” Omalu told me last week. He compares it to an oil tanker: “It will take time to turn it around, it may take a generation or two,” but it will happen, even if it is “one person at a time.”
And Dr. Judith Gates, who is, along with Popham, one of the founders of the new Head For Change charity. “This is an epidemic,” says Gates. “This must end now. We must all recognize the fragility of the brain, along with its centrality in defining the person. ”
It is not just about changing the attitudes of the people who play the game, or who direct or referee it, but that everyone who talks about it, writes about it and watches it, too, at elite and amateur levels. One group trying to help sport navigate this change is the Concussion Legacy Foundation, founded in 2007 by Chris Nowinski and Dr. Robert Cantu.
They have been working in the United States for most of that time, and are now expanding into the United Kingdom. Among other things, CLF is running a media engagement program to help educate journalists on the best way to report on these issues. His idea is that children learn most of what they know about these topics by watching sports on television. So if you want to change the culture, commentators are a good place to start.
The CLF held its first concussion reporting workshop in the UK on Monday, in partnership with Oxford Brookes University (They also have a helpful toolkit on their website, offering a free course on responsible reporting.) It puts a lot of emphasis on the need to use honest, precise, and unadorned language, which is something Robinson also talked about. He mentioned how happy he was when he heard a commentator describe a concussion as a “traumatic brain injury” on television, even if it “made a lot of people fall out of their seats because it was such a shock.” It’s a small but significant change, putting more emphasis on the severity of the injury.
“If you ask me what could improve,” says Robinson, “it would be to spread that message, consistently and clearly: that this is a traumatic brain injury and that you have to take it seriously because it can be fatal.”
It still seems that there are too many people in the game who are reluctant to acknowledge risks, who prefer to avoid them or pretend they are not there at all. In this Six Nations, hopefully, we’ll see signs that the game’s needed change is coming, even if it’s being done one word at a time.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism