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March 25, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Hoopin’ and Hollerin’

Round Two: After the Final Whistle

Sport is measured in short periods—five-days, one day, 20 overs.  90 minutes, 80 minutes. Five sets, three sets. Four 12-minute quarters, 24 seconds. A hop, a skip, a jump. 9.58 seconds. In the greater scheme of an athlete’s life, these are but moments; split seconds of moments, even. Yet these moments often define an athlete’s life. Whether it’s the glory of victory, the ensuing financial rewards, or the cathartic release of a lifetime’s concerted focus, there is no doubt that sport changes lives. But at what cost?

Since 2011, there have been six suicides of former NFL players linked to concussion-based depression. In 2007, professional wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife and young family after an episode of roid-rage. Muhammad Ali has had Parkinson’s for 29 years now. The average elite athlete will die at age 67. These are the long-term impacts of sport, impacts we are all too happy to sweep under the rug once the final buzzer sounds on a sportsperson’s career.

We idolise players like Buck Shelford who play through a torn scrotum, a broken arm, a concussion. When both the Australian NRL (rugby league) and American NFL (American football) independently proposed rules around concussions and dangerous tackles—let me reiterate that tackling with your head is encouraged and widely practiced in the latter—they were met with an outcry from traditionalists. Are we really thinking here?

For many athletes, their life is the real game of two halves—the time spent able-bodied, and the remainder. The ratios are not in their favour, and one can’t help but think that the ‘win at all costs’ doctrine internally and externally foisted on today’s competitors is fundamentally flawed.

I don’t have the answers; perhaps there are none. Researchers at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) are trying, though. In August last year, AUT announced a partnership with the International Rugby Board, launching a study to look at the long-term impacts of head injuries and the general health outcomes of playing rugby. Computerised neuropsychological testing, active balance testing, and physical and mental health and competency measurements will be taken from 600 players at all levels of the game, to be analysed over not moments, but years.

At the same time, the NZRU announced that the ITM Cup would be the trial-ground for a new Pitch Side Control Assessment protocol. This requires all players suspected of having sustained a concussion to be replaced for five minutes, until the severity of the concussion can be ascertained.

Moves like these are a step in the right direction, certainly. Sadly, evidence-based practice is often unpopular or goes unheeded at the grassroots level, and it will almost certainly take a long time for safety standards in sports to be widely recognised and respected. In the meantime, athletes will continue to jeopardise their future health for glory, money and adoration, based on a modus operandi of ‘do now, worry later’. We’ll continue to watch them, share in their
victories and vicariously live our sporting dreams through them. Yet at the end of the day, the only heartbreak we’ll share is the on-court or on-field variety—the post-career risks are the white elephant in the room, and it’s time we started sharing in those as well.

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