NFL concussion precedent an omen

05th Sep 2013, 14:51

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Tragedy: Junior Seau

Tragedy: Junior Seau

In the final of his trio of articles on concussion, Jamie Lyall looks at the effects of the NFL's recent lawsuit.

In the final of his trio of articles on concussion, Jamie Lyall looks at the effects of the NFL's recent lawsuit.

Last week, it was announced that the NFL had reached a $765m settlement with former players and their families, who claim that the body neither addressed the dangers of concussion in the sport, nor fully revealed the extent to which it understood the problem.

In the world of American Football, the tentative agreement has brought about a decidedly mixed response. Perhaps unsurprisingly so given the governing body's poor reputation for the way in which it looks after and supports its participants of yesteryear.

For rugby union, it should serve as another blatant warning of the potential for concussion, and the failure of those in positions of power to deal with it, to result in catastrophe.

The events of this summer have seen concussion brought to the fore within sport in an unprecedented manner.

In the rugby world, the IRB's latest protocols to tackle head knocks and player welfare (the Pitchside Concussion Assessment or PCSA) have been met with widespread criticism and debate. I have followed the controversy for Planet Rugby as key figures have spoken out on concussion, new medical research and player welfare.

With concussion now well and truly in the limelight, the IRB should look to the stellar and ongoing example set by the NFL of how not to handle to the problem.

Firstly, and crucially for the body, the settlement reached on Thursday does not hold them accountable for the medical conditions suffered by so many of their former players. Nor must they concede that the injuries themselves were caused by the sport, or indeed, expose files that may betray the true extent of their knowledge of the threat posed by concussion. In fact, the sum itself is arguably mere chicken feed in relative terms, when one considers that the NFL - last year alone - recorded a profit of some $9bn.

The class action filed by the former players and their families totalled around 4,500 plaintiffs. There are cases of early onset dementia, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy among others. Several ex-pros took their own lives while enduring life-altering and debilitating brain conditions, most notably former line-backer Junior Seau.

That the NFL has effectively seized the opportunity to stall and silence those who spoke up against them is, at best, morally questionable. That it has done so without admitting fault, or being forced to fully address the issue, is nothing short of tragic.

The problem of concussion in American Football is hardly a recent development, and it is testament to the governing body's suppressive, "hush-hush" attitude and evasive tactics that it has taken this long to come to a head. The settlement comes just days after it emerged the NFL had pressurised broadcasters ESPN into withdrawing from their fifteen-month partnership with PBS's Frontline in producing a documentary on head injuries in the sport.

The public, fans, officials, and -most importantly - players and their families deserve to know just how dangerous a game they are presently playing. How high the risks are that they may go on to develop brain damage or a serious neurological condition. How American Football may be altered to help improve and tackle concussions and player welfare.

The settlement answers none of these questions. Instead, it shows the continuation of a thoroughly backwards and downright dangerous stance on an issue that can - as has been seen - spiral well out of control.

This chain of events that followed the PCSA's introduction has merged into something of a "perfect storm" for the IRB. Parallels can certainly be drawn between the way the NFL has remained vehemently secretive on the problem, and the "shrug it off" macho attitude so often adopted by rugby, even in the modern era.

This, then, must be the time for the IRB to act decisively. If the sport's governing body required a further wake-up call as to the dangers of concussion, then it received roughly 765 million of them last week. This is no longer an issue that can be conveniently swept under the carpet, particularly in an age where the physical attributes of players are vastly different to those of even as recently as a decade ago.

Whether the PCSA regulation will prove to be the answer to rugby's growing concussion problem is highly debatable. Undoubtedly, it requires much work yet in order to be successful and significantly improve player welfare.

The IRB must realise that the problem is now too great and too serious to be treated in the same manner as their transatlantic counterparts. Awareness certainly seems to be at an all-time high thanks to the high-profile incidents of the past few months, and the body is now under heavy scrutiny - it simply cannot afford to get this one wrong.

There are encouraging noises from within that positive steps are being taken. But if the IRB want a blueprint for the disgraceful mismanagement of such a dangerous health problem, they need look no further than the path taken by the NFL.

by Jamie Lyall
@JLyall93