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The rugby league family takes care of its own, but can the authorities do more?

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21st October, 2020
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On Saturday afternoon in the UK, early morning Australian time, Leeds beat Salford 17-16 in a behind-closed-doors but pulsating Challenge Cup Final that had everything: big hits, smart half play, good finishing, nail-biting drama, snide remarks about attendance, everything you could hope for in a showpiece event.

To cover up for the lack of fans, tarpaulins covered up the empty seats, featuring adverts for spray-on paint, a bookmaker that has benefitted from my financial imprudence, and replica shirts of Masoe 10, and Burrow 7.

Both Mose Masoe and Rob Burrow have been through serious injuries and trauma, the progression of which is still unknown. These cases raise serious, non-performance related issues of player welfare, and how the sport deals with them. And I’m not raising this point just to avoid thinking about Souths’ agonising defeat.

The way the ‘rugby league family’ has rallied around these two players is a heart-warming tale in these bleak times. When Mose Masoe was hospitalised with spinal damage and no guarantees that he’d ever have limb function again, £111,395 was raised by the public for rehabilitation efforts and familial support. The fact he walked into Hull KR’s victory on Tuesday would justify that figure ten times over.

The BBC aired a documentary before showing Rob Burrow’s trials and tribulations involving Motor Neurone Disease. It was scheduled for Monday, but a certain Boris Johnson had to go and ruin it by hogging the limelight carping out his usual blusterous diatribe and undeliverable hope raisers (speaking of which, my next article will be how Souths can win in 2021).

I’m not generally inclined to show my emotions. The only times I’ve recently been teary-eyed were seeing friends return home from student exchange because of government shutdowns, and in a village cricket match, going to bat having forgotten my box.

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But I’ll admit the harrowing disposition and the tragic circumstances had me cutting onions, reaching for the tissues in a pre-watershed manner. If you can, I highly recommend watching it.

Which brings me to my point about the sport and its governors. These cases show the willingness to support players when they get into serious difficulty. Jamie Jones-Buchanan split the gate receipts from his testimonial with the former half.

Fans have been willing to stump up £423,708 of hard-earned money to Rob Burrow’s cause during a self-induced economic collapse that measures as the worst in the history of the UK, and the authorities have been nothing but amazing with their support. But can more be done to alleviate or prevent such scenarios in the first place? Are there mitigating measures the powers-that-be can implement?

Not for one moment should authorities consider taking a sledgehammer to a nut. Calls to ban tackling among kids arise periodically among a hypochondriatic subsection that would not be content until the entire nation is insulated in 1.5m-thick bubble-wrap.

A study released in June that found significant brain changes among former NRL players, with “widespread regions of diffusion tensor imaging changes” against your average man. Burying your head in the sand and wishing the problems away would be a dereliction of duty and harmful in the long run.

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Studies need to be undertaken (with the financial backing of scientific and public health authorities, not from our cash-strapped game) to determine what is and isn’t a risk, and the precise measure of harm, if any, that can befall players, and what can be done to mitigate this.

If it turns out that there is no link between head collisions/contact and later life-limiting conditions, then all the power to us. It will give the green light for would-be weary parents to let their kids engage in the Greatest Game, in a crowded sporting and entertainment market, without nagging doubts.

If links are found, then authorities can take some measures (that do not alter the fundamental nature of the game). If wearing a head-guard was proven to improve cognitive functions in retirement, then they should be strongly encouraged if not mandated. This does not mean helmets, which may actually exacerbate the problem.

If there is a slight risk of later-life conditions, then players, fully aware of the risk, can opt into a well-remunerated insurance and welfare policy. Fundraising can be instigated to find cures and treatments for conditions like MND if they are proven to be linked to playing rugby league.

This is such a complicated area, where emotions may run high at the thought of altering rules and spirit. Bluntly, this should not be contemplated. But these issues will only linger and worsen if they are not dealt with now. The game has shown its ability to stand up when the occasion necessitates – it’s time to take the lead and act with the confident morality it has shown this year.

Mose Masoe’s fundraising page can be found here
The latest Rob Burrow MND fundraiser can be found here

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