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Could CTE spell the end of Grassroots footy?

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Roar Pro
5th July, 2019
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Today and tomorrow all across Australia, the parks, grounds, fields, reserves and ovals will turn into a colosseum for local gladiators to engage in non-mortal combat.

Representatives of rugby, league and football (Aussie Rules) clubs from under 6’s through to first grade will put their bodies on the line in the pursuit of victory, just like the star players on TV.

However, unlike those players, the weekend warriors don’t get the headlines, adulation, criticism, remuneration or the same level of health care.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease, due to recent findings in Australia is in the news again. The resulting attention almost exclusively on the professional game, player welfare and how in practice the sports need to adapt on and off the field.

But what does CTE mean for the grassroots and those players this weekend?

Obviously excluding the very young age groups, concussions are not exclusive to the professional game. Take away the fitness and strength levels that come with the training regime of a professional, the effort levels at the grassroots are no less. Watch any country town or suburban local derby this weekend and watch the spectacle of no self-preservation.

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For me, the prospect of CTE could see a dramatic decline in the participation rates of the big three combative sports that dominate winter. In contrast to the headliners that receive substantial payment for the punishment, the reward for the effort at grassroots is at best measured in the thousands. In my case, back in the day playing for my local rugby club, I paid for the privilege.

Yes, there are a lot of benefits to lacing up the boots. Improved physical health, mental health and community connection are some, and not to be discounted. But I am pessimistic as to whether the risks as acutely highlighted recently for those that don’t receive lucrative financial reward outweigh the benefits.

Every Saturday I still get that itch, but knee injuries prevent me from scratching. Having had at least two concussions, I wonder if that was serendipitous in preventing further head trauma and even if I was healthy would I continue to play?

It’s not as though the aforementioned benefits cannot be acquired outside of the two rugby codes and Aussie Rules. Football (soccer), cricket, basketball, surf clubs, hockey, volleyball, netball, rowing and cycling are some of the ‘other’ mainstream options where the risk of CTE is minimal.

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Downward participation levels won’t be drastic. Tradition, popularity and safety changes to the management of head injuries may keep things steady. But just as people have the agency to accept the risk, that same agency will be used to weigh up the potential costs. People are only open to a certain amount of risk and all risk cannot be negated. Such is the nature of the footy codes.

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Furthermore, in an age where people can ill-afford to get hurt due to workplace demands and the financial pain ill health can cause, the costs of potential major long-term health consequences may just be too much.

I would be surprised if your local competition has not already had a decline in player numbers due to the immediate risk of potential injury places on a player’s employment.

CTE could stand for “Change To be Expected” not just to the brain, but to the influence, it may have Australia’s sporting landscape. I personally love the grass-roots, there is nothing better than watching your neighbourhood warriors do it for the area and those wanting to “have a go get a go”.

But without the financial rewards and the verified risk associated, it is hard to see long term viability for team combat sports.