GAA is expected to allow temporary replacement for head injuries

Players often reluctant to leave the field with suspected concussion as adrenalin kicks in

The GAA is expected this weekend to move into line with other field sports by allowing temporary replacement for head injuries. Motion 27 to Congress proposes that such situations come into the same category as blood injuries with a period of treatment or assessment during which a substitute may play.

Although anything to do with head injuries is automatically linked to concussion, the framers of the motion, the Standing Committee on Playing Rules, had been hopeful to avoid too close an association with the condition, as part of the purpose is to remove some of the anxiety caused.

Underpinning Saturday’s proposal is the problem, evidenced in experience and research, that players are reluctant to leave the field with suspected concussion because adrenaline kicks in and they want to play on.

It is considered more likely that they would accept the need to leave and have the injury looked at rather than go off with effectively a presumption of concussion.

Policy on that is currently, ‘if in doubt, sit them out’ but that doesn’t always translate into practice.

"The purpose of this is to put something in place to address what's happening in reality," according to Dick Clerkin, chair of the GAA's Medical, Science and Welfare Committee.

“It’s really to provide for players, medics – where available – and mentors a bit of space and opportunity to allow a correct assessment to be made of the health and condition of a player prior to returning to play. In the current situation we feel that there’s a lot of pressure involved in a very visible but narrow period of time on the field of play.

“Experience is telling us both anecdotally from speaking with players and from qualitative and quantitative studies that there are cases when there are head injuries and players aren’t being removed for assessment.

“I think with this rule there’ll be no reason why a mentor won’t use the time available just as they would with a blood injury. We want it to be a natural response. When a player is cut he doesn’t resist going off because it’s automatic – you leave and get fixed up.

“Sometimes it takes a little while for the symptoms to surface and the effects to become apparent so a player after a couple of minutes sitting in the dugout can realise, ‘I’m not right’ whereas on the field of play they may try to run it off. I did it myself as a player.”


Clerkin’s term of office concludes at congress and over the past three years he believes that the issue of concussion has improved through discussion and heightened awareness.

“Everyone believes that it’s still a big problem. It’s not as big as it was but we’re talking about it more so we’re more aware. We hear about cases where players are doing the right thing by taking themselves out of games. It’s natural for people to think that it’s becoming more of a problem whereas we’re just dealing with it more openly.

"There's a greater understanding that health can be put at risk. After matches, players are more willing to get it checked and rehabbed rather than leaving it a little while and just going back. Things like the Ryan McHugh video [the Donegal player talking about his concussion] have really helped.

“Players have also developed a better understanding of the symptoms and the need to get themselves looked at and if necessary to take time out of the game. That’s happening at all levels. I think we’re in a much better place and people shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. This rule is just another step in that direction.”

He knows that there is a challenge for the non-elite end of the sport where doctors aren’t in attendance and there’s no medical authority but feels that this measure can help to normalise greater acceptance of the need to leave the field automatically.

Soccer has recently moved to provide a similar facility, which left Gaelic games as the only team sports not doing so. Both rugby and soccer have specific concussion exposure from the collision-based nature of one and the use of the head in the other but if the GAA's incidence isn't as elevated, the association doesn't want to be an outlier either.

“We don’t benchmark ourselves against other sports because there are different risk profiles but if you are doing things completely differently to everyone else it’s either because you’re way ahead or foolish and I think in this case people would opt for the latter.”

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