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Phil Gould urges NRL fans to "read the research" on concussion. So I did...

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31st May, 2021
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“Something is going to happen. Mark my words, something is going to happen.”

It was the closing stages of a tight State of Origin match when Phil Gould uttered this phrase, doubtlessly smiling to himself at the level of insight he had provided.

It’s easy to pile on ‘Gus’, largely because it’s his job to be a controversy magnet. He espouses strong opinions and he doesn’t back down.

But with over 50 years in the game (based on the assumption he had laced up a boot in the years prior to signing with Penrith in 1976) as a player, captain, coach, coaching director, general manager of football, pundit, and whatever we call the crucial role he played for the ARL during the Super League war, the man has earned the right to deliver opinions.

You don’t have to agree with him, but to dismiss him out of hand shows your ignorance, not his, even if a lot of what he says are just his thoughts being framed as being irrefutable fact.

But what I do get tired of is when he frames irrefutable fact as being his thoughts – such as the comment highlighted at the top.

Phil Gould

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Really Gus, “something is going to happen”? Was that based on coaching six victorious Origin series, or because it’s inarguable? Maybe a dramatic try would lead to a come-from-behind victory. Maybe the team ahead would kick a field goal to seal the result. Maybe both teams would tackle to a standstill and the scoreboard wouldn’t change any further.

Maybe a meteor would hit Earth and render the entire game pointless.

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Whatever the outcome, something happened. And Gould got to act like his statement was wisdom only he, the most successful coach in NSW history, could have provided, rather than a basic statement of fact that a four-year-old dishes up on a daily basis.

That’s when you can get pissed at Gould. When, rather than drawing upon wisdom gained from five decades in footy, he says a truism and then leans back acting like he’s provided the ultimate comeback to an argument no one was having.

And he’s been at it again these past few weeks regarding the issue of concussion, imploring people to “read the research”.

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It’s the ultimate ‘I win’ statement, because it uses scientific evidence to back up a belief and science should be the slam dunk in an argument. So Gould has taken to rattling off “the research” when getting steamed up over the head-high crackdown.

Prefacing his opinion by stating that he doesn’t like to talk about concussion “because the minute you do you are howled down by people who either want to take the moral high ground, get on a soapbox or who are uneducated at the research”, Gus proceeded to talk about concussion for a good ten minutes on a recent Six Tackles with Gus podcast.

“I urge people to go and actually read the research and see what the medical science is actually learning about this – not what they’ve decided, what they’re learning,” he said.

Discussing research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (“this term called CTE, I can’t say the long term, if you want to sound intelligent you learn the long term and people think you know what you’re talking about,” Gus said, thus discounting the opinions of people who have read enough research to learn the name of a disease strongly associated with concussion) Gould said, “you don’t get CTE because you get knocked out or have one traumatic concussion experience, it’s a condition caused by a number of repeated and sometimes even minor conditions or what they call sub-concussions.

“The research on this, if you actually read it, you will understand how uneducated some of the opinions are being espoused about it.”

Ryan Matterson of the Eels after a head knock

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

He went on, “I just urge people to do the research and settle down a little bit. The last thing I want is footballers thinking that if they have a concussion event that they’re going to be somehow debilitated late in life, when that is not the truth and that is not the research.”

He doubled down on this last Monday night, saying on Channel Nine’s 100% Footy, “I’m sick of people espousing opinions without doing any research…”

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Look, in theory it’s fair comment. Rugby league is faced with an issue that is medical at its core and our understanding of said medical issue is fairly shallow, due to study in the field being relatively recent.

As such, when it comes to concussion, citations trump seasons. And Gould appears to have recognised as much.

But quick question for you Phil: which research have you read?

By telling people to go out and read the research, you imply that you’ve digested the most up-to-date investigations conducted by qualified people.

So who were they? What was the title of their paper? Where was it published? Who reviewed it? What data did they use to reach their conclusions? What were their conclusions?

You don’t get to ridicule the overwhelming narrative regarding an issue based on your blind assertion that no one has read the research if you can’t cite any research that you yourself have read.

Urging people to read “the research” without any further information on where they find the evidence you’re relying on is the realm of the anti-vaxxer, the flat earther, the climate denier. Sure, there are papers available that support your way of thinking, it’s just that the authors tend to have earned their credentials at the University of Bullshit.

Phil 'Gus' Gould

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

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I’m not saying Gould hasn’t read any research any more than I’m saying he was wrong when he predicted that “something” would happen in a game. It’s just that stating a truism doesn’t give you intellectual superiority, nor does telling people to “read the research” carry any actual weight if you can’t tell people what specific research you’ve read and precisely how it changes the colour of a debate.

So here’s some research that I’ve dug up, including links to where I found it so interested parties can follow up.

From the Alzheimer’s Association: “Those at greatest risk for CTE are athletes who play contact sports (e.g., boxers, football players, etc.) and military veterans, likely due to their increased chances of enduring repeated blows to the head.”

According to the Mayo Clinic: “CTE may be prevented because it is associated with recurrent concussions. Individuals who have had one concussion are more likely to have another head injury. The current recommendation to prevent CTE is to reduce mild traumatic brain injuries and prevent additional injury after a concussion.”

Now, I’ll repeat, this is a newer field of study and the science is still in flux, so I’m not looking to jam those quotes in anyone’s face, fold my arms, curl my lip and wait for apologies and praise.

But that also means Gould can’t simply say “read the research” after saying his piece and act like it’s case closed. Because the case on CTE is totally open.

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That said, as CTE goes (if you’ll pardon a loose analogy), it’s looking a lot like cigarettes to lung cancer. A pack-a-day smoker isn’t guaranteed of getting the big C and someone who has never so much as taken a drag can die of that awful disease, but your odds of getting cancer shift with every durrie. In this instance, replace durries with head injuries and cancer with CTE.

Footy players aren’t guaranteed to get CTE, but they’re in a completely different risk category than those of us who bang our heads against a proverbial brick wall in an office for a living.

Of course, Gould’s ultimate aim is to poke holes in the NRL’s protect-the-head edict, saying that “the vast majority of traumatic or concussion events that we see in the game today are with people making the tackle” and that asking players to lower the tackle range will “bring in more collisions with the head”.

Now, on this, the numbers are in his favour. The tackler is more likely to be concussed than the person carrying the ball.

But don’t confuse facts with the truth.

How many one-on-one tackles do you see in a game of footy? The standard now is a gang-tackle of two or three blokes taking down a solitary man carrying the ball. Take the Cowboys vs Warriors match from Friday night – according to NRL Stats, a total of 348 runs were made over 80 minutes, while there were 685 effective tackles.

Of course there are more injuries in making a tackle – it happens almost twice as often!

That said, a recent study conducted by Dr Suzi Edwards of the University of Newcastle et al acknowledged that “the majority of head impact injuries [are] sustained by the tackler rather than the ball carrier” and that “50-51% of concussion injuries occur from legal torso tackles”.

Victor Radley is sent to the sin bin.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

But their research also stated “High (illegal) tackles possess the greatest risk for injury”.

(Full disclosure: Dr Edwards is a colleague of mine, although I do not speak on her behalf and only refer to her work because it is recent, peer-reviewed and was published in the highly reputable International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching.)

The tackler may cop the most head injuries and legal tackles may account for the greatest number of concussions, but to say legal tackles are the problem is like saying spaceflight is safer than automobile travel, because only 32 people have died attempting to visit space – more than ten times that amount of people died on NSW roads alone in 2019.

I mean, come on, read the research!

But when you’re told that, as of 2018, only 565 men and women have ascended into space, you start to see how a stat can be skewed.

High tackles might not cause the majority of head injuries, but they are the riskiest. And since the game of rugby league cannot eliminate concussion, it needs to swap out high-risk actions for those that carry lower risk.

That’s why we’re seeing the crackdown, not because concussion is going to ever disappear from collision sport, but because the actions that increase the risk of concussion need to be cut down as much as possible.

And that’s because the more concussive events a person sustains, the more likely they are to develop long-term health problems, including – but not exclusively or definitely – CTE.

So yeah, I’ve read some of the research and so far, I’m with the NRL on the crackdown. As for my prediction on whether HQ has the stones to see their edict remain in place?

Something is going to happen. Mark my words, something is going to happen.

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