There is no doubt that sports can be dangerous, especially those that are considered to be ‘contact sports’, where there are various levels of physicality. Obviously, some are more rigorous and as a result much higher risk than others for different types of injuries.
However, one of the most potentially life-threatening injuries in sport are those to the head, which can have severe long term effects. Two sports especially that have witnessed an influx of attention surrounding head injuries is rugby and football, as reported in the Guardian recently.
A leading expert; consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart from the Queen Elizabeth University in Glasgow conducted a study that showed footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than those of their same age in the general public.
Following the results of the study, Stewart said:
“We’ve got the evidence of high levels of dementia now in sport, and … from pathology studies, which says that part of this dementia pathology in these individuals is CTE, which is a pathology only encountered in those with brain injury.”
Commenting on American Football, Stewart continued:
“They now do not do any contact training during the season and they have modified the game considerably to try to reduce risk. The players who are playing are only on for a few minutes at a time. There’s a pool of dozens of them, if not more, so when the players are on the park it’s high impact but there’s not much of it going on. If you look at football they play dozens of games a season, training every day, the number of headers in football is going up not down, as people try to suggest.”
He also said that rugby is slightly different:
“But professional rugby players are training through the week, contact training still, playing 30 matches a season … and the season almost never ends now. Potentially, professional rugby is stacking up even more problems than any sport we have seen.”
Indeed, Martin Raftery, the Chief Medical Officer for the International Rugby Board in 2013, commented:
“CTE is a form of dementia, and there are studies about boxers and American football players who have suffered repetitive head injuries, so we recognise that there might be a potential link.”
Furthermore, the study conducted at Glasgow University, stated that footballers had a five-fold risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimers, though there was no indication as to why this was.
Of course, while football gets most of the attention there are other sports where head collisions are common and more impactful. For example, a recent study by the The University of South Wales followed a professional rugby union team over a season and found that cognitive functions and blood flow to the brain can decline in just a single season. This has led to calls for rugby to follow NFL protections to reduce potential brain injury.
Let’s take a look at some other cases over the years from different sports, particularly related to head injuries.
Cassius Clay – Boxing
Arguably the most famous case over the last few decades is that of arguably one of the most notable and famous athletes in the world, considered by many to be the greatest boxer of all time; Cassius Clay, known famously as ‘Muhammad Ali’.
Undeniably one of the most gifted boxers to have ever graced the ring, at his peak, Ali was practically unstoppable and did things that bewildered many. Though the long term effects of such a glittering and successful career have been hard to watch.
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was 42 as well as spinal stenosis, caused because of so much punishment in the ring, mainly repeated blows to the head over a sustained period of time, however, his speech had actually began to slur several years earlier. Ali sadly passed away in 2016 from his illnesses, after a long battle and this is just one famous case of how sport can have a long term effect on your body.
Rob Burrow – Rugby League
The rugby league world was saddened when in 2019, a legend of the game and true gentleman, Rob Burrow was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, which forced the former Leeds Rhinos player to effectively end his career. In the short time since, it has been a sad and rapid decline and has received mass media attention in the UK.
Even now, aged 38, the player under normal circumstances should be enjoying his retirement from the sport or even potentially still be playing, as is the case of some who are in the twilight years of their rugby league careers.
Rugby league is arguably one of the most punishing sports on the body that there is; fast-paced and physical for 80 minutes, with many of the players wearing only a gum-shield for protection and no limit to how hard players can run at each other and tackle.
This over a sustained period of time, as has been shown in the case of Burrow, has the potential to have devastating effects and this case has significantly raised the awareness of how possibly dangerous the sport could be long term on the body.
Nic Evans – Rugby Union
Another instance, this time in the opposite code, former rugby union player, Nic Evans has said that she has no memories of her appearance at Twickenham, due to sustaining what she believed could have been “100s” of concussions in the game.
Speaking to the BBC in March 2021, about playing at Twickenham, the former Wasps Ladies flanker said: “I don’t remember any of the game.
“I don’t remember playing, I remember before the game and then I remember being home in Wales and I think that happened throughout my playing career.”
Ryan Mason – Football
In January 2017, Ryan Mason experienced one of the most arguably dangerous head injuries while playing for Hull City in a Premier League game against Chelsea, after clashing with opposing Gary Cahill. Instant medical attention was needed to treat a fractured skull.
Due to this collision, Mason cut his football career short at the age of 26, announcing his retirement because of the possible long term effects that this incident may have, if he suffered another similar injury later down the line, while playing.
Petr Cech – Football
Arguably the most famous in the Premier League in recent times, saw the then Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech have to wear a protective head guard for future games as a result of one of the most gruesome head injuries ever seen in the sport. Diving to collect a loose ball, the Czech player clashed with the knee of Reading player Stephen Hunt, which resulted in a broken skull.
Doctors later reported that the incident had nearly cost the player his life and his decision to carry on playing after treatment was ill-advised by many medical professionals.
Daniel Muscott – Horse Racing
Another sport that is often overlooked when thinking about injuries, however, it does have one of the highest risks attached to it. This was indeed the case with jockey Daniel Muscott, who, in 2018 fell from his horse and sustained several major injuries.
Muscott was left with a broken bone in his neck, a broken rib and several broken vertebrae and speedy work from the medical team ensured that his condition did not deteriorate.
Combatting Major Injuries In Sport?
While in the majority of sports, there is still a risk of getting injured, for some, mitigating those risks, especially in rugby, which appears to be one of the most dangerous, could certainly help – particularly where long term effects are concerned.
Some players do already wear protective headgear and some even wear body pads (by choice), though making this compulsory, as it is with American Football, could definitely assist in reducing the risk of long term injury.
Football is another sport that witnesses some horrific clashes, as seen with Cech and even those that aren’t related to the head specifically, such as broken legs (Eduardo da Silva, Arsenal), can still lead to long term problems.
Although the introduction of headgear for all footballers is unrealistic, more caution and certainly even educational seminars paid for by football clubs, could help to raise the awareness among footballers about being less reckless in matches.