Not knock­ing footy, but watch the head knocks

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - UPFRONT - mary-rosemac­ mary-rose maccoll

Ihad to or­gan­ise a birth­day party with a dozen nine-year-olds when we were in Canada and so I en­listed the help of Em­mett, the tall, ath­letic 15-year-old son of a Cana­dian writer friend. The plan was that the kids would play soc­cer in the gym and then go to the pool. One kid had to sit out the soc­cer be­cause he’d bro­ken his col­lar­bone the week be­fore be­ing “body-checked” (an ice hockey move where you shoul­der some­one out of the way) in a school play­ground com­pe­ti­tion. A gor­geous bear cub of a kid, the boy sat on the bench with me, arm in a sling, long­ing to play. As he watched Em­mett with the ball, the boy leaned over. “That guy’s good,” he said. “He is,” I said. “And you know what else?” The boy shook his head. “He did bal­let and tap for years, and he reck­ons that’s why he’s good at soc­cer.” The boy looked at Em­mett and back at me. “Re­ally?” he said. He looked at Em­mett again. “Re­ally?” he said, shak­ing his head. It was as if I’d told him Frosty the Snow­man was real.

I was keen to watch ice hockey in Canada, which I imag­ined would be beau­ti­ful and grace­ful, like Torvill and Dean with a puck, noth­ing like rugby league foot­ball in Aus­tralia with its love of vi­o­lence. And ice hockey is grace­ful, I dis­cov­ered, but it is also un­be­liev­ably vi­o­lent. In the Stan­ley Cup, where US and Cana­dian teams vie for supremacy, brawls erupt reg­u­larly. Play­ers lose teeth, lac­er­ate faces. The body-check­ing isn’t bear cubs hav­ing fun. In the first game we watched, a player was up­ended, land­ing head-first on the ice, suf­fer­ing con­cus­sion. At the next game, a player was folded like a piece of paper and slammed against the boards, se­ri­ously in­jur­ing his back. Ad­ver­tis­ing for games show­cased the vi­o­lence.

Ath­letes and medi­cos are now speak­ing out about the long-term ef­fect on the brain of re­peated head in­juries, of which play­ers of many col­li­sion sports, in­clud­ing ice hockey and foot­ball, have an in­creased risk. De­men­tia pugilis­tica, now called CTE – chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy – is some­thing we’re still learn­ing about. It’s caused by re­peated head trauma and it trig­gers pro­gres­sive de­gen­er­a­tion in the brain months or even years later, caus­ing mem­ory loss, per­son­al­ity changes, speech and gait ab­nor­mal­i­ties, and early de­men­tia. The head trauma might not even have to be se­ri­ous enough to cause con­cus­sion. The youngest ath­lete whose brain showed signs of CTE was a 17-year-old in the US who’d been hit in the head play­ing kids’ foot­ball. And while hel­meted head collisions are part of the game in Amer­i­can foot­ball, our codes of rugby league, rugby union and AFL all have their fair share of head trauma.

So how do you re­duce in­jury? Should play­ers rest longer af­ter a hit, or quit ear­lier? Should we stop our kids play­ing these sports? How do we stop our play­ful cubs from grow­ing into griz­zlies who re­ally hurt each other? Col­li­sion sports have more in­juries be­cause of collisions, but as I watched the Soc­ceroos stand up so well to the re­lent­less Nether­lands team last month, and com­pared it to the State of Ori­gin just a few hours be­fore, there was an­other dif­fer­ence. In the soc­cer there was less vi­o­lence, and when there was a mis­step, a ref­eree was there with a yel­low card. The fo­cus of World Cup ad­ver­tis­ing hasn’t been vi­o­lence. It’s been grace – the Mex­i­can goal­keeper’s un­be­liev­able save, Tim Cahill’s mighty goal.

Some kids, in­clud­ing the boy on the bench at the party, love to wres­tle, com­pete, even col­lide. They’ll want to play col­li­sion sports. The least they should ex­pect is that their he­roes are not modelling vi­o­lence, which we ab­hor in ev­ery other area of life and which of­fends sport. Olympic ice hockey has zero tol­er­ance and it works. In Queens­land, an in­ter­est­ing trend among kids might mix things up too, and help pre­vent CTE in to­mor­row’s adults. While in­ter­est in rugby league has shown an in­crease in re­cent years, more boys are also dancing. More girls are play­ing soc­cer, and more boys are dancing. “Re­ally.”

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