The tragic death from concussion of 14-year-old Ulster rugby player Ben Robinson in 2011 put a face on an injury that is becoming a growing concern in sport, particularly rugby. The International Rugby Board (IRB) currently has concussion protocols on trial, while earlier this month the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) launched its own concussion programme for amateur rugby players of all ages. Theirs is an education-based approach. The organisers of Six Nations are currently hoping to adopt those IRB protocols for use in the 2014 Championship. The issue goes wider than just rugby and recently at an Acquired Brian Injury seminar in Aviva Stadium, Gaelic footballers Michael Darragh Macauley and Rory O'Carroll spoke of their fears and confusion when they suffered concussive blows, O'Carroll playing for Dublin in this year's All Ireland Final.
The governing bodies are addressing the issue in their own ways but there is a divergence of medical opinion in rugby. The most outspoken critic is Dr Barry O’Driscoll, an uncle of rugby international Brian O’Driscoll, who claims the IRB trials are treating players as guinea pigs and are “a dangerous abuse of players.” Dr O’Driscoll’s contention is that the period of five minutes, which the IRB allows for pitch-side assessment of the injury, is too short to rule out a subtle concussion and that players are being sent back into a “most brutal arena.”
It is a serious accusation from a respected source, as Dr O’Driscoll was formerly an IRB advisor on medical matters until his resignation over the five minute assessment. American football, the NFL, this year paid out over €500 million in compensation to concussed players, so the issue of possible litigation is another concern.
In recent matches players with possible concussion have been removed from play. That’s progress. But the IRB and the IRFU need world medical authorities to declare that a five minute pitch-side assessment fully protects welfare of their players. Nothing else will do.