Head over heart: It’s time for change regarding concussions

(Image courtesy of SkySports)

Head injuries require more serious assessment before it’s too late

Concussions have long been an issue that football has failed to take on head first. After two worrying incidents in high-profile matches last week, conversation regarding the protocol for head injuries has resurfaced, as the world of football seems unanimously on board with the necessity for change. If it doesn’t, the discussion could soon have a deadly, regretful twist.

As things stand, too much responsibility is placed in the hands of those who should have no say. When Jan Vertonghen went down after a nasty clash of heads with teammate Toby Alderweireld and Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana last Tuesday, it seemed unequivocally clear that he could not continue. Yet, this was a Champions League semi-final; he told the medical staff he felt okay and despite displaying symptoms of a concussion was allowed to continue.

Perhaps succumbing to the pressures of such a high-profile occasion, medical staff briefly “assessed” the Dutchman before allowing him to re-enter the field of play. Approximately seven minutes after the initial contact, he signaled to be substituted and was helped as he trudged groggily off the pitch and down the tunnel. Football fans across the globe simultaneously shook their heads and breathed a deep sigh of relief.

The machismo of players and emotional attachment of managers — both to their players and the result of the game — mean that the decision should not be up to them. For too long, football has been in denial, and “he wanted to continue” or “it’s just a knock to the head” are no longer acceptable responses. Head injuries are a serious, potentially life or death issue, and must be treated as such if the game is to progress.

Many potential answers to the concussion problem have been mooted in the aftermath of these two latest incidents. What cannot be argued is that the protocol used for head injuries testing states that a proper assessment cannot be done in less than 10 minutes, so why do we force medical staff into a dereliction of duty, in many cases subsequently placing players in further danger?

They are expected to make a snap judgment on the health of a player who seemingly, unless unresponsive, can reject their assessment in the hope of continuing. On Saturday, Mohamed Salah was stretchered off after a heavy collision with Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka left him sprawled on the turf for five minutes. The decision was taken out of his hands, as it should be in every case of potential concussion brought about by impact.

The common consensus is that an additional 10-minute “concussion substitution” should be allocated to teams in every game. As a result, medics (with no connection to the teams or the outcome of the game) could fully and objectively assess a player’s wellbeing under no pressure, taking the risk factor out of the situation.

It shouldn’t take such a shocking incident for change to occur. The game needs to lose its ego and learn from the advances made in this area in other sports. In American Football for example, the NFL has brought in new rules regarding concussions: its concussion protocol states that a player must be immediately removed from the field following a hit or collision that could have resulted in concussion. The NFL has taken an increasingly strong stance on concussion rules, with the league’s decision to broaden the helmet-hit rule in March its latest attempt at increasing player safety.

Many onlookers have voiced their concerns regarding the state of football’s handling of such matters, and for too long they have been drowned out. Football must change its culture of denial and toxic masculinity, along with its haphazard dealing with such an important issue. It is about time the authorities think more rationally and with their heads not their hearts, introducing more appropriate rules, or else the result could be fatal.

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