Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Health and Safety Doesn't Matter Here

CONTENT NOTE: Some of the embedded links depict head collisions.

By Shane Thomas

In the aftermath of Chelsea's comfortable 2-0 win over Arsenal on Sunday, it would be easy for one to focus on Arsenal's propensity to be outmaneuvered by a direct rival yet again, or even the childish altercation on the touchline between Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho.
However, there was a much more pressing story to emerge from the contest. With the score at 0-0, Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez was involved in a collision with Chelsea goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois. It was an unfortunate accident, the kind that can always happen in a sport as rapid as football - especially in a league as intense as the Premier League.

Courtois was briefly knocked unconscious. However, the Belgian continued to play on for another 15 minutes, until finally being substituted for Petr Cech.

The rules in football about how to deal with potential concussions has been alarmingly laissez-faire for far too long, but at the start of this season, new regulations were put in place, ostensibly to offset any potential harm to players.

However, the efficacy of said regulations have to be called into question. Because Courtois is the latest a line of players who have suffered head injuries, and continued to play, with little more than a cursory once-over from medical staff. We saw this three times at the World Cup, with Alvaro Pereira, Javier Mascherano and Christoph Kramer all taking hard knocks to the head, without being immediately being withdrawn from the game[1].

The issue of head injuries in the sport doesn't just stop at collisions with fellow players, but also with the simple task of heading a football. Former West Brom legend, Jeff Astle died, aged only 59, from what was determined as "death by industrial disease". Astle was renowned for his aerial prowess, and the repeated heading of a football appears to have been a contributory factor to his death.

What seems so alarming is how football authorities seem so reticent to put this at the forefront of the game's agenda. We are talking about the health and well-being of the players, without whom, we would have no sport, and no multi-billion dollar industry for these authorities to profit from.

Having a club doctor examine a player during a match leaves one open to having their judgment questioned or swayed by the head coach of the respective team. We only have to cast our mind back to the NFL in 2013, and the controversy surrounding the cruciate ligament injury suffered by Robert Griffin III in a playoff game.

There should be no reason why an independent doctor shouldn't be pitchside in situations like this, much like they have in tennis. Also, as PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor recently stated, there should be no ambiguity over the procedure when a player suffers a head injury.

Football can be a maddeningly conservative sport, and has a disconcertingly reactive approach to problem solving. It wasn't until after Fabrice Muamba nearly died from cardiac arrest - during what was to be his final match - that the Premier League reviewed its procedures to ensure that requisite medical assistance would be on hand in the event of a repeat occurrence.

Chief executive, Richard Scudamore said of the review, "Incidents and events shape policy, shape developments, shape progress."

And there's the problem. It's governing bodies who should be shaping policy. They shouldn't be reacting to incidents after the fact, at which point, the damage may already be done. Elite footballers may be handsomely paid, but they seem to be viewed in a manner similar to how Stone Cold Steve Austin described the professional wrestling industry on the eve of his retirement[2].

I said on this blog once that the FA doesn't care about the safety of its professional players, in regards to dangerous tackling. Well, we can extend that disinterest to the issue of head trauma. Until a serious incident occurs, of course.

I sorely hope I'm wrong, but until a player suffers severe brain damage, or worse, footballers will continue to be put at far greater risk than they should be.


- Staying on the topic of player safety, another worrisome trend from last weekend was the amount of dangerous challenges we saw. Both Gary Cahill and Danny Welbeck should have been sent off for endangering their fellow players with reckless attempts at tackles in the Chelsea vs Arsenal clash.

We also saw a dreadful tackle from Ryan Bertrand on Kyle Naughton in the Tottenham vs Southampton encounter last Sunday, which could potentially keep Naughton out of action for 3 months.

It's taken longer than it should, but English football has gradually begun to establish two-footed challenges, and tackles that go over the top of the ball, as proscribed behaviour. While some use the patriarchal canard that, "the game's gone soft", these days it's now univocal of which kind of tackles are acceptable, and which aren't.

I sorely hope that the past weekend was nothing more than an aberration, and not a return to a time where the more skillful players in the game would be advised to wear two pairs of shinpads before taking to the pitch.

- Let's end this post on a heartwarming note. The Asian Games are currently taking place in South Korea, and in the gold medal kabaddi match[3] between India and Iran, the Indian players immediately paused the contest after an Iranian player's hijab inadvertently came loose.

The way they instinctively offered assistance to their opponent not only showed a life-affirming respect for one's religious expression, but also demonstrated that sport should never be a place where one feels unwelcome[4].

It's an example that FIBA would do well to follow.

[1] - Kramer's injury happened in the World Cup final. He has subsequently admitted to having no memory of the match.

[2] - By the way, here's my response to anyone who wants to mock my love of professional wrestling.

[3] - British people of a certain generation may remember the days when kabaddi was part of the Channel 4 schedules.

[4] - Many thanks to the Twitter feed of the razor-sharp, Shireen Ahmed, for making me aware of this story.

"The Greatest Events in Sporting History" is available to download from http://www.simplysyndicated.com/shows/sportinghistory/, e-mail us at sportshistoryshow@googlemail.com and you can follow us on Twitter @TGEISH

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