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AFL footballers' brains should be sacrosanct

Roar Guru
7th March, 2012
15
1389 Reads

After the infamous sickening collision between Jordan Lewis and Jarrod Harbrow at Etihad Stadium in 2010, a report stated: “Lewis was carried from the ground, and the alarmist in everyone thought he had suffered serious injury to his ribs, chest, neck or head.”

It was a sign of ignorance about head trauma that it was considered possible Lewis had been knocked unconscious by a blow to the ribs.

No, it was his frontal lobe, the seat of reasoning and personality, that took the blow from Harbrow’s flying hip; an impact so serious his brain chose to shut itself down.

Some clown – the sort of person who is opposed to the AFL’s new concussion management guidelines that prevent concussed players returning to the field – had this to say about it: “If a player is bumped while they are standing vertically and contact is made to the head it should be just play on even if that player is knocked out or injured, this is footy and contact is expected I don’t care if mums don’t like it.”

The brain is given short shrift by football matches and action movies. It is there to take hits for our entertainment.

When James Bond orders his martinis “shaken not stirred” he could be talking about his brain. With the regular head poundings he receives he shouldn’t have survived his first outing in Dr No with his faculties intact.

That brain of his with its so-called protective membrane would have sloshed around in its fluid and slapped up against the inside of his skull – there, ironically, to protect the precious organ from outside impacts.

It is not a good thing to have any part of your brain take a hiding to nothing.

Amazingly, spectators who have never taken a hit aren’t the only ones poo-pooing the idea of concussion management. The players themselves have proven to be the biggest hurdle to understanding and monitoring the effects of concussions.

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Unbelievably, Lewis was allowed by doctors (who clearly have a conflict of interest between player and club welfare) to return to the ground. It was a courageous act – but stupid.

His teammate Campbell Brown while praising his courage also let it be known that the player code gave Lewis no option:

“So, you know, it was his turn and he did it, and that’s one of our team rules”.

Strengthening the neck and torso can reduce the effect of relayed shock to the brain from strong tackles which is why rugby league forwards are built like brick outhouses. Unfortunately they don’t have muscles on their head so when skulls hit, they stay hit.

Last week an anonymous NRL player wrote an article expressing the player code and in so doing showed an ignorance of long-term head injury:- “Rugby league is a masculine game, fiercely so. Weakness, or a sign of it, just isn’t an option. Get back in the line, shake it off. And is a footballer’s migraine going to be any worse than the other things that lie in your future: bung knees, shoulders and fingers that have been broken….? So you just keep going … consequences are something to think about when your footy career’s just a memory.”

Unless one of the consequences is loss of memory, of course.

Medicine has a long way to go when it comes to understanding the brain, let alone fixing or managing a damaged one. The owner of a brain knows when something is horribly wrong though. Mildly concussed footballers mention the ringing in the ears – a sure sign of the temporal lobe copping a good beating – from the side of the skull or from surrounding parts of the brain. The temporal lobe is also important for long term memory.

Then there is nausea, the body’s way of telling you of the existence of a foreign or toxic presence, and headache.

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The more serious cases involve loss of balance, blurred vision, slurred speech, confusion and, of course, a loss of consciousness (the frontal lobe’s way of saying “Adios!”). These immediate symptoms of concussion are a result of the brain tissue being stretched causing blood vessels to burst leading to bruising on the brain. The location of the bleeding will determine the nature of temporary dysfunction.

If given time, the brain will heal itself from singular episodes. Repeated concussions, however, pose a different threat: permanent damage to brain tissue and functioning. The science is still weak but the link between repeated concussions and brain dysfunction is clear.

It’s highly likely that when Muhammad Ali allowed big men to tire themselves out by giving him glancing blows on the ropes, he was committing himself to a future with Parkinson’s disease. Multiple concussions are also on the causal list of some forms of dementia and epilepsy.

They are a definite cause of the progressive degenerative condition of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) whose symptoms include memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression. The disease has been found in numerous dead NFL players and is the basis of a current lawsuit by former players against the NFL, its clubs and the official helmet manufacturer.

Last year former Melbourne player Daniel Bell submitted a claim for compensation after brain scans confirmed a deterioration in his cognitive function. He believes a loss of memory and ability to concentrate are a result of multiple concussions sustained over his sixty-six game career.

In lower level competitions I imagine head contact injuries are more numerous because evasive skills are less likely. But even players capable of a side step may refrain from it because it’s considered unmasculine and disrespectful to opponents. Rather, plough on through.

It’s right that intentional and accidental contact to the head is illegal.

At present the players’ code of toughness stipulates that you must either run through someone, or put your head down, to have it run through by someone else.

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And for the spectator who thinks a hip and shoulder to the temple is a good spectacle – if only I could put him in the centre square of Etihad Stadium and have Sam Mitchell put up that hospital pass again.

Most of us aren’t sure how we’re going to explain environmental damage to our children.

What’s Jonathan Brown going to say to his children down the track about his decision to keep playing?

Will he be capable of stringing words together, or even talking at all?

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