American footballFootballLocal RugbyLocal sportRugby

Time to knock head injuries on the head?

In December 2021, Wolves travelled to the Emirates to face Arsenal in the Premier League. About 20 minutes into the game, Wolves had a corner and as the ball was whipped into the box a crunch was heard as well as the cry of the player who had collapsed to the ground.

Wolves’ forward Raul Jimenez had gone to head the ball goal-wards and had instead met the forehead of Arsenal centre-half David Luiz, lunging straight towards him. Without added crowd noise, the crack of the clash of heads echoed around the stadium and Jimenez lay still on the ground.

As medics from both sides raced to assess Jimenez and work out the next steps, Luiz was having a concussion test on the side of the pitch and his head bandaged up. After a delay of ten to fifteen minutes, Jimenez was secured and stretchered off to be taken to hospital, where it was later revealed that he had fractured his skull.

While Jimenez clearly came off the worst in that challenge, Luiz had further tests and was allowed back on to play the rest of the game. Many at the time were outraged at this decision, as it had been an almighty clash of heads, but Arteta defended the decision, and the Brazilian was seemingly fine.

“Seemingly fine” is a buzzword in the world of sport and has often been used as justification for sending a player back on after an injury, especially a head injury.

In recent months it has become clear that “seemingly fine” will no longer be acceptable, with more investigations and research being done into the connection between long-term effects of head injury and sport. This has been made clear by the UK with a parliamentary enquiry being launched to investigate this.

Many protocols surrounding head injury, and how to prevent this, have begun to change in a range of contact sports in the UK.

Head coach of Washington Rugby, Dave Kennedy, recalled just how much grassroots rugby has begun to change since he first started playing.

“I’ve been playing for nearly forty years and I’m quite lucky that I was only concussed twice.

“Both times were deliberate, and it’s horrible concussion. I woke up on my settee at midnight and I’d totally lost the day- I didn’t have a clue where I’d been or what I’d been doing.

“I was supposed to be at work as well and one of my friends had to ring up and say I was at home.

“It was never taken seriously to be honest in the 70s.”

Gary Sykes is Head of Football at Washington AFC, which boasts 26 youth teams as well as six adult teams. Having started out as a goalkeeper, Gary remembers one of the first times he played outfield and had to head a ball.

“I remember going to head the ball and it was an experience like ‘wow’ I can’t feel my head, my ears are ringing and that was just after heading the ball once in a game.

“I mean the footballs have changed since you and I have played, there seems to be a lot more foam around them, but after that I remember I didn’t even dare header a ball.

“I think I just pretended I couldn’t reach the ball and let it bounce past me, I’d rather have been a goalkeeper than an outfield player!”

Football and rugby are two of the main sports in the UK where concerns have arisen about long term damage caused by head injury.

In the past few months alone, a number of high-profile former players have shared their experiences of damage caused through head injury.

Former England hooker Steve Thompson, 42, told his story to the Guardian that he cannot remember winning the World Cup in 2003, with other rugby players around his age revealing they have been diagnosed with early onset dementia.

In football, multiple members of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad were diagnosed with dementia before their deaths, including Nobby Stiles and Jack Charlton.

Former Sunderland centre-half Dave Watson is another who have been diagnosed with dementia, thought to be a consequence of heading footballs.

Sykes, who has 24 years’ experience as a youth and adult football coach, says that he has seen a dramatic cut back in the amount of heading young players do in training.

“The English FA’s core syllabus 24 years ago was shooting, dribbling, passing, running with the ball and heading.

“It was a very popular part of the session but over the course of the years now the FA has developed being more about the player and more game orientated.”

Last February the FA released a set of guidelines that prevented under 11s from heading the ball at all in training sessions.

Children under the age of eighteen are able to practice heading the ball, but only for one session per week with a maximum of ten headers per session.

Kennedy has also coached youth and adult players and says that he can see changes regarding safety happening further down the line.

“It’s [head injuries] are being taken a lot more seriously than they were previously, even to the coaching of tackling.

“Certainly the HIA (Head Injury Assessments) especially in the professional game and the way they monitor it has really improved in the past six months.”

Although rugby is improving in its awareness and training around head injuries, Kennedy suggested there is further work needed at grassroots level.

“From a coaching point of view especially at grassroots level, we don’t have a match official that would take it [head injuries] seriously to be honest.

“They do their best to be fair, but they tend to be old school and just let people carry on.

“I think as soon as someone has a head injury they should be off. I’d take my players off.”

Research at Durham University concluded that post-retirement many rugby players are likely to suffer from injuries sustained during their playing career.

One of the ways that the research was conducted was by working with the Newcastle Falcons, who wore plasters fitted with sensors behind their necks to monitor this.

The NFL is one of many sports organisations across the world that have had to face the realism of head injuries in the game.

This area came to light as more research was being put forward to the body about the dangers of their players suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE problems in American Football have played out on screen with films such as Concussion and a documentary by Netflix about former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted for murder and later revealed to have been suffering from CTE. 

Nathan Chatterton-Sherburn, cornerback for Newcastle Raiders American Football team believes that technology similar to that used in Durham University’s research is the way forward.

“I think in recent years when the NFL finally accepted that head injuries were actually happening they have taken a lot of measures.

“They’ve definitely made progress in the past few years and there’s a lot of technology such as sensors on helmets and shock absorbers, which is a positive sign.”