Wednesday, 27 November 2013

When it comes to head injuries in sport, we can learn a lot from looking to America

Hugo Lloris returned to the Tottenham Hotspur line-up on Sunday, but not to the kind of game he'd have liked. The Frenchman has been in the wars lately, with a controversial head injury in his team's fixture against Everton on 3 November. The last thing he would have wanted was to be on the end of a 6-0 drubbing by an effervescent Manchester City frontline.

But at least Lloris was fit to play. Too often, this is not the fate of sportspeople who suffer head injuries. The tragic example of American high school football player Charles Youvella is a case in point. Just over two weeks ago, Youvella died after sustaining a head injury while playing a game in the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

By all accounts a brave and talented player, Youvella's injury came in a Saturday night game, when he was felled by what witnesses described as a 'routine football tackle'. Routine it may have been, but the back of the young man's head hit the ground with considerable velocity. Two days later, on Monday 11 November, Youvella was dead of a traumatic brain injury - notwithstanding, in uncomfortable echoes of the Lloris incident, the fact that immediately after the initial impact he got to his feet and lined up for two more plays.

High stakes

Terrible, premature deaths like Youvella's remind us of the high stakes in many sports, from football, whether American or in the form of 'soccer', to rugby, horse-racing and boxing.

No one would seek to ban people from taking part in sport, the upsides of which embrace an individual's health and sense of self-respect and have a wider societal benefit in fostering discipline, camaraderie and teamwork.

But in many things America shows the way - and last August the National Football League agreed to a $765m (£478) out-of-court settlement with a group of former players who had sued the league for, as The Guardian put it, "its role in hiding or underplaying the effects of brain trauma in the game, while glorifying its violence, a cover-up which has been exposed in a series of recent books and documentaries." Happily - in a development that we should applaud - Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen last week announced that he will fund a two-year, $2.4 million study into whether repeated blows to the head can lead to dementia.

American football is not only sport in the spotlight for its alleged laissez-faire attitude to head injuries. Just this week, 10 players from the National Hockey League began legal proceedings against the league for negligence and fraud, alleging that the sport’s officials should have done more to address head injuries but instead celebrated a culture of speed and violence.

Too robust?

Could the same thing happen here? British sporting culture prides itself on being robust, on taking the knocks and getting up and playing on. But 'being robust' can have deadly consequences. Hugo Lloris was, thankfully, lucky; the next footballer encouraged to play on after a head injury might not be.

The key message is that prevention is better than cure - especially when it comes to brain injuries. We must remain vigilant and astute to the dangers of 'getting on with it'; so too must we keep a watchful eye on medical developments in this complex area. And, looking across the pond, we could sensibly take a leaf out of Paul Allen's book - at the same time as hoping that British sportspeople don't find themselves forced to take class actions to achieve recompense for traumatic head injuries.

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