The pain game for M¯aori league players
n alarming number of Ma¯ ori rugby league players have been found to suffer from the early onset of osteoarthritis after they retire.
Dr Trevor Clark has two new titanium knees because of his
12-year footy career.
Clark played professionally in England from 1983 to 1995, during which he received an honours and masters degree majoring in exercise physiology and sports psychology.
Five years ago, he started researching whether other Ma¯ ori players had experienced similar issues he had. He focused on Ma¯ ori because no-one else had and on how many Ma¯ ori play the game.
His research is believed to be the first Ma¯ ori rugby league study.
Clark surveyed 179 Ma¯ ori amateur and professional players who’ve been retired between one to
15 years. Twenty five of them were tested and 10 interviewed face-toface to discover what happened when they hung up their boots.
Bodily pain was the worst rated of all the conditions in the survey. In a rating system where 100 per cent is no pain and 50 per cent is the average, the players had a negative rating across all age groups. For example, 25-34 year olds had a rating of 35.6 compared to the New Zealand national health standard of 77.9 per cent.
The massive differences surprised Clark. ‘‘The early onset of osteoarthritis was debilitating for them during their playing careers and continued to be worse in their retirement,’’ he said.
‘‘We’ve got to make sure players look after their bodies and they’ve returned to normal function before they play again.’’
He says players can be influenced by many factors – including wha¯ nau, management and fans – to return too soon from injury.
‘‘It’s a bit of a pressure cooker situation, the importance of the occasion ramps everything up as well.’’
Clark cites this year’s NRL final when Sydney Roosters halfback Cooper Cronk played with a fractured scapula. It’s turned Cronk into a league legend.
‘‘Is that responsible? Hard to say. Did he get through the game? Yes. Did they win? Yes. So that made everything better? Probably not, but they got the result,’’ says Clark. ‘‘Let’s see what happens to Cooper Cronk 10 years down [the track].’’
Clark recommends players with injuries run the full course of treatment. But it wasn’t just the physical pain Ma¯ ori retirees were struggling with.
Concussion was another significant issue. Clark says three players had to retire from the sport early because of head knocks.
‘‘One of them had to change his whole vocation,’’ says Clark.
‘‘He was a plasterer by trade but obviously he couldn’t stand on stilts, he couldn’t do anything above his head because he would faint or was dizzy. So he had to learn a completely new trade because of concussion.’’
Clark has worked on other research involving collision sports and concussion.
He is concerned professional clubs aren’t setting the right example. He’s often asked by amateur players why they have a longer stand-down compared to the professionals. It’s three weeks for adults and four weeks for children.
Clark says there isn’t a simple answer because concussions are unique and specific to an individual, the experiences are not the same from player to player. Also, the condition and reaction to stimulus of concussed professional players is monitored daily by team doctors and management.
‘‘Whereas amateur players, they get looked at by a doctor who may not be a specialist sports medicine doctor. Sometimes they may even be talked into a reprieve, ‘I’ll be all right doc, let me play’. We say to our amateur players to observe the minimum stand down period. We can’t control what goes on at that level.’’
One of the highest rated concerns raised by Ma¯ ori players was the loss they felt when they retired. Clark says they suffer from withdrawal and it’s a significant loss. The mental health rating was low across all age groups compared to the national health standards. For example, in the 35-44 year olds the rating was 69.6 compared to 81.4 per cent.
‘‘It wasn’t just the playing of the game, it was being involved, being around the other players that was a massive loss for the players, not just the running around.
‘‘How do they mitigate that? A lot of them go into coaching, training, managing anything to stay involved in the actual sport.’’
He says the impact of withdrawal hurt the players.
‘‘Probably more so with professionals, that sense of loss was greater because they were adored by thousands of supporters.’’
Clark says it’s sometimes hard to accept, especially for those who’ve just retired. It takes time for them to realise there are alternatives to playing.
Chris Nahi felt the loss keenly when his professional four-year career ended with the Gold Coast Chargers in 1998.
‘‘It was the feeling of loss, the team-mates, the fame and fortune,’’ says Nahi.
‘‘You thought that was your identity, that’s who you really were. That’s where the depression kicks in.’’
Nahi had developed a drug habit while he was playing. It turned into a full blown meth addiction after he lost his contract.
He became a drug dealer and sensationally a police fugitive in 2005. Nahi was eventually deported from Australia. He’s just opened up Victory House in Whangarei, based on the residential addictions centre he attended in New South Wales.
Nahi says when he was playing for the Gold Coast they didn’t talk to him about life after footy.
Clark says retirement planning while players are still in the game is the key to dealing with the withdrawal from footy. ‘‘If you haven’t got anything to go into that sense of loss is worse,’’ he says.
Despite the risks involved with playing, Clark would never discourage anyone from giving the sport a go.
Both of his sons have played rugby league. His youngest, Mitch, is still playing with the Castleford Tigers in England.
‘‘There’s a lot of pressure on players to go out and perform irrespective of whether their bodies are 100 per cent or not. It’s a double-edged sword,’’ he says.
‘‘Enjoy it while you can. You’re a long time retired but they are the best days.’’
Trevor Clark, here playing for Bradford Northern in 1993, says one of the highest concerns for Ma¯ori players was the loss they felt after they retired.