Headed Behind – Football’s Concussion Issue Remains Unaddressed

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The human brain is a fearfully and wonderfully made thing. Even without tapping into its full potential, we’ve split the atom, cured polio, traveled to space and invented pizza bagels. It’s our most valuable asset. And yet in the sporting world, it seems as if we do not fully appreciate its importance. More importantly, we seem to not fully appreciate its fragility. At this point we’re well aware of the dangers that concussions pose to players. In American football, the National Football League has amped up their concussion protocols tenfold in order to limit the dangers of brain injury in an increasingly fast-paced and violent sport.

International football’s governing body FIFA gave lip service to their own concussion protocols before the 2014 World Cup, but little to no change in procedure was visible to the horror of those looking on this summer. During the World Cup, Álvaro Pereira of Uruguay suffered a horrific knock to the head during a group stage match against England. Visibly knocked unconscious for over a minute, the entire world watched in shock as the defender was allowed to return to the pitch, shaking off the concerned team doctor agitating for his removal from the pitch and re-entering the field by his own volition to complete the match. ESPN commentator and former US Men’s National Team member Taylor Twellman, whose career was cut short due a staggering seven concussions, was understandably furious, venting his disbelief and outrage via Twitter:

Twellman has been one of the most  vocal and consistent advocates for addressing the current concussion protocols. His personal experience, combined with a plethora of scientific evidence for the danger posed by concussions has made waves, but the international footballing community has yet to truly address the issue. In the Final of the World Cup, on the biggest stage available, Germany’s Christoph Kramer was another victim of the archaic rules set in place.

Dashing his head against Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay’s shoulder early in the match, it seemed obvious that Kramer had suffered a concussion. The hit snapped Kramer’s head back as the young midfielder fell to the ground, clearly appearing to lose consciousness. Experts noted that his “fencing response” was a clear signal of a brain injury, decrying both the Germany medical staff and FIFA’s handling of the situation.

Kramer’s return to play is even more chilling after hearing post-match comments regarding his injury. Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli revealed that Kramer asked him, “ref, is this the final?” Believing him to be joking, Rizzoli asked him to repeat the question, finally realizing the dire situation at hand and notifying Bastian Schweinsteiger of his inability to continue. According to Kramer himself:

“I can’t remember that much from the game. I don’t know anything from the first half. I thought later that I went straight off after the incident. How I got to the changing rooms I do not know. I don’t know anything else. The game, in my head, starts only in the second half.”

Terrifying words to hear from a man who played a further 15 minutes, risking potentially fatal second impact syndrome and a plethora of other complications stemming from concussion.

Chelsea's Thibaut Courtois is revived after suffering a concussion following a clash with Arsenal player Alexis Sanchez

Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois is revived after suffering a concussion following a clash with Arsenal player Alexis Sanchez

Fast forward to October 5th, 2014, and the issue remains unaddressed. In a massive English Premier League matchup between Chelsea FC and Arsenal, Chelsea’s goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was involved in a jarring clash with Arsenal attacker Alexis Sanchez in the 9th minute. Appearing to lie unconscious for nearly a minute, Courtois was revived, evaluated by a Chelsea trainer and eventually allowed to continue on. After 13 minutes however, the young Belgian was removed and taken to hospital with bleeding from his ear. Taylor Twellman was again in the thick of things, tweeting his distaste for Courtois’ handling:

Chelsea have insisted that the proper protocols were followed, with team doctor Paco Biosca allowing the goalkeeper to play on after a minute of deliberation, but it seems abundantly clear that a proper evaluation cannot take place in just a minute. This is a protocol that needs to change, but the way forward is murky at best. Encouraging steps have been made by FIFA, as they plan to adopt a 3-minute break for concussions, but this is likely to hit stiff resistance as purists understandably worry about the effects of such a significant break in play. Additional, temporary substitutions have been offered as a solution, but this is a less-than-ideal stopgap that will most likely raise issues as well as wily managers and players use the situation to their advantage.

Due to the free-flowing nature of the game, concussion prevention and treatment is an issue that requires much planning and preparation to deal with properly. However, it is an issue that needs dealing with immediately. In this age of medical knowledge, the current outdated protocols are unacceptable and outright dangerous for the athletes that step on the pitch every day for our entertainment. What sort of changes should be made to protect players and maintain the integrity of the sport? Leave your ideas in the comments!

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Aaron West

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