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Malachy Clerkin: Recent concussion incidents show some sports making bigger strides than others

Incidents in three different sports made for a depressing week for player safety

Sport still has a concussion problem. Despite all the studies, all the lawsuits, all the millions paid out with countless more in the post. Even now, knowing what sport knows, we’re still at the point where players and coaches and doctors — some of them with the highest profile possible — really don’t grasp the existential threat. The past week alone proves the point.

Let’s start on an up note. Last Saturday night in Hampden Park, Kieran Tierney was removed from the pitch by the Scotland team doctor Johnny Gordon. Gordon had countless reasons not to insist on hauling Tierney off. The incident itself was pretty innocuous — Troy Parrott seemed to trip over him and, at most, brush his knee off the back of his head. Nobody was expecting a substitution.

The timing gave Gordon a bit of leeway too, with only a few minutes to go until the half-time break. There was scope to let Tierney see out the half, get him into the dressingroom and take it from there. Add in the fact that Andy Robertson was already out injured, so Scotland were going to be bringing on their third-choice wing back. Plus they were a goal down, at home, against a team that had beaten them 3-0 in their last meeting.

But Dr Gordon wasn’t happy with what he saw and he radioed the Scotland bench to tell them he was coming off. Watch the footage back and you can see Tierney is visibly annoyed at the doctor’s decision. Which, of course, is the principal reason for having the doctor make it.


When it comes to dealing with concussion, sport needs more Johnny Gordons.

It also needs fewer Bundee Akis. The red card the Connacht and Ireland centre got last week in South Africa was ridiculous. Most people will have seen the incident by now and recoiled at the sight of Aki driving his shoulder into the head of Stormers winger Seabelo Senatla in an attempt to clean him out at a ruck. Whether there was a concussion arising from it or not was irrelevant, it was reckless.

But even more ridiculous was the point he seemed to be trying to make to referee Gianluca Gnecchi as he was being sent off. “On the clean-out, where do you want me?” Aki hectored. “Where do you want me? Where do you want me to clean?” This was after the red card had been shown. So much for rugby players not talking back to the ref.

Aki was making a fool of himself in badgering Gnecchi. The pertinent question isn’t what the referee wanted him to do at the clean-out. It’s what he didn’t want him to do. Above all else, what Gnecchi didn’t want Aki to do was bury his shoulder at speed into an opposing player’s head. How anybody who has watched rugby over the past decade could be in any doubt about this beggars belief.

Very few sports have wrestled with concussion the way rugby has. It deserves huge credit for the culture change it is bringing about in the game, for the alterations to its laws and especially for the willingness to use red cards to bring about the reckoning the game needs. It’s an ongoing process but everyone who goes out on to a rugby pitch knows the stakes.

Aki certainly can’t plead ignorance of that reality. This is his third suspension since 2019 for red cards that involved foul play to an opponent’s head. Aggressively asking a referee where he’s supposed to go in the clean out is nonsense. No referee in any sport has a responsibility to tell a player how he should successfully execute a skill. But every referee has a responsibility for the safety of the players on the pitch.

At the end of a grim week, it was a timely reminder of what ultimately happens to the canary in the metaphor. And that no sporting body, not even the NFL, can afford to be so casual with its future.

Accidents happen. These games are faster than ever, the players are bigger than ever, the difference between a legal tackle and one that will get you an early bath is not always cut and dried. But everyone who saw Aki’s clear-out knew straight away that it was reckless. And more to the point, that rugby won’t tolerate it. Not now and not in the future.

It can’t. That’s the thing Aki forgot when he was ballyragging the referee. The red card wasn’t about him, it was about the sport itself. Nobody will stop playing soccer depending on whether or not Kieran Tierney is replaced out of an abundance of caution. But some portion of rugby’s future depends on it being made obvious that clear-outs like Aki’s can’t be allowed to stand.

As if that wasn’t depressing enough, the saga of Tua Tagovailoa, the Miami Dolphins quarterback, rounded off the week. It was already bad enough that Tagovailoa came back on to the pitch last Sunday after staggering around on wobbly legs because of a hit to the head in a game against the Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins were adamant afterwards that it was a back injury and Tagovailoa didn’t have to enter concussion protocols.

Which was handy as it meant he could play against the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night. Late in the first half, Tagovailoa was slammed to the ground and was immediately concussed. Play was stopped for seven minutes while he was stretchered off. It was about as shocking a concussion as you can get, so much so that the NFL didn’t include footage of him being carried off in their official highlights package.

The NFL was the canary in the coal mine for sport’s concussion problem. So much of what sport is doing worldwide to make their games safer started with gridiron. Like rugby, the NFL has instituted plenty of changes along the way and while it will never be able to make American football completely safe, there was at least a sense over the past few seasons of a sport getting to grips with the reality.

Sending one of the game’s star young quarterbacks out to play four days after a hit left him jelly-legged on national TV is a return to the dark days. They couldn’t have known he’d get slammed to the ground again but they wouldn’t have been in any doubt of the risks involved, nor in shock when it happened. The resulting 48 hours of concussion talk dominating the American airwaves was the least they deserved.

At the end of a grim week, it was a timely reminder of what ultimately happens to the canary in the metaphor. And that no sporting body, not even the NFL, can afford to be so casual with its future.