"It's strange people talk about how time's a healer," Peter Robinson says, "but I don't think we've ever found that." It's been 10 years since he lost Ben, his 14-year-old son, to a brain injury caused by the repeated blows to the head he suffered during a school rugby match. And the pain feels as close to the surface now as it did the first time we spoke.
It was the 10th anniversary on Friday. "Another anniversary," Peter says. "It just underlines that he's not here. You see his mates from school growing up, getting engaged, getting their degrees, and it makes you think about everything he's missed out on, and everything we've missed out on." When I first reported on Ben's death in 2013, his mother, Karen Walton, described concussion as "the game's dirty secret".
Officially, the cause of death was Second Impact Syndrome, but really it was ignorance. Ben should have been taken off the pitch the first time he was hit, but he was allowed to play on, and get hit again, which is what caused his brain to swell. “If everything had been in place on that day,” Peter says, “if the people there that day had more knowledge, Ben would still be here now.” Since then, Peter’s spent a lot of time trying to raise awareness of the risks, to make sure that no one else will ever have to go through what he has.
He is on the Scottish concussion advisory board, and works with the Edinburgh University thinktank on concussion. “You get moments where you think you’ve done as much as you can, and then you have others where you realise we’re taking two steps forward and one step back.” He tells a story about watching Ben’s younger brother, Gregor, play a game of football. He went up for the ball, clashed heads, and came down staggering.
“Our coaches all know the score, so he came straight off,” Peter says. “And then as he’s leaving the pitch, the ref says: ‘If he’s OK in five minutes he can come back on.’ And you think: ‘Hold on, the message still isn’t getting out’.” Other parents sometimes ask him for advice about what they should do to protect their children. “If in doubt, sit them out,” he tells them. It’s simple. But some people still don’t get it.
He is doing some football coaching himself these days “and I see it probably every other week”. He adds: “There’s a clash of heads, and people stop to ask questions: ‘Are you OK to play on?’ or: ‘What day is it?’ It’s this myth that’s grown up over the years: ‘If they can answer the questions then they can play on,’ like the idea you can treat someone with a magic sponge. You could answer all those questions correctly and still be concussed.”
At youth level, the protocol is that a player should come straight off. But, as he says, the rules only work if people follow them.
“It’s one thing having protocols, but you need the culture behind it, too, because if you have the wrong person in charge, it doesn’t matter what protocols are in place, they’re still going to make the wrong call.” Over the last decade, he’s seen that culture “slowly, but surely start to change”, but it hasn’t moved as fast, or as far, as he would like, and it’s still not where it needs to be.
“There’s a lot of regional variation. I know where I live all football teams and rugby teams follow the message, because there’s good people backing it.”
In Scotland the “If in doubt, sit them out” message is up on hoardings at Murrayfield, and other grounds. “That was a big step forward. We’re very lucky that we have the right people at the top, and everybody came on board with it, there was no agenda apart from ‘let’s get the message out’.”
It isn’t that way everywhere. There are people in rugby who should feel ashamed of the way they treated the Robinson family. “As if Ben’s death meant nothing to them, their attitude was: ‘Deny, deny, deny’,” he says.
“The higher up you go, the more you realise what some of the people who run the sport are all about.” And it’s not just rugby. “All these sports seem to have the same attitude, which is that ‘it’s not a problem until we discover it is’. It’s as if they’re all trying to see how long they can hold out until they have to confront it, instead of coming clean and admitting this is an issue, and asking what we can all do about it. But then, if you leave it to sporting bodies, they are always going to try and protect the sport, and the image of their game.” Even that word, concussion, is misleading.
“Sports use it because it doesn’t panic or alarm people. But we’re not really talking about concussions here, we’re talking about traumatic brain injuries. And that’s what they call it in the emergency departments.”
This stuff matters. He describes how one of the home unions took one of the leaflets he’d produced for distribution in schools, and changed the wording, so that where it once said “Concussion can be fatal” it now read “Concussion can be dangerous”.
“They’re all worried about the footfall,” he says, “they want to keep people coming into the game.” It feels like it’s only now that a group of former players have launched legal action after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia “that people are really starting to realise how dangerous this all is.
“So if you ask me what could improve, it would be getting that message out, consistently, and clearly: that this is a traumatic brain injury, and you have to take it seriously because it can be fatal. So play sport, but know the risks, and minimise them as much as you can.”
Robinson believes that there should be mandatory concussion lessons in schools, just as there is now mandatory CPR training. And looking back on what happened, and what he’s been through, this is one of his regrets.
He knows his work has helped save others. “We’ve had a couple of mums contact us and say they’ve seen their boy go down, that the coach cleared him to play on, but they knew he wasn’t right so they took him off the pitch anyway. And they ended up in hospital. One of them had a bleed on the brain. And she told us that it was reading about what happened with Ben that gave her the confidence to speak up.” But he wishes they had reached more people, wishes that the administrators and politicians he met in the years after Ben’s death had done more.
"In a way Ben's death was a missed opportunity, because to me, that was a real opportunity to educate people about this issue." He compares it to the case of Rowan Stringer, a 17-year-old Canadian girl who died in 2013 of Second Impact Syndrome after suffering repeated head traumas in school rugby. It led the Ontario Government to pass Rowan's Law, which stipulates that all athletes, parents, coaches and officials involved in youth sport have mandatory concussion training. In Britain, even after all this, concussion education is still piecemeal, the protection patchy.
“We still have a long way to go yet, the way I see it is we’re guardians of our kids’ brains until they turn 18, and we have to think about reducing the amount of risk they’re being exposed to, and there’s still so many things we can do. So I ask myself, did we get justice for Ben?” he says.
“And I don’t know.” - Guardian
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