Premier League left behind in the treatment of head injuries

Seeing a player lying unconscious on the field of play is something that sends shivers down the spine of fans, coaches and teammates alike. Perhaps even more concerning for onlookers is seeing that same player returning to the fray as if their injury was nothing more than a chipped nail.

This is exactly what happened at Stamford Bridge last weekend, after Chelsea goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, collided with Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez. The Arsenal striker had been chasing a through-ball, forcing Courtois to run out of his goal, leading to Sanchez, unintentionally, knocking the Belgian unconscious.

After remaining motionless for a number of seconds, Courtois was given the all clear and returned to his post. He lasted just another 14 minutes however, with a bleeding ear, and was taken to hospital for further assessment.

These actions, or lack thereof, have sparked a wave of criticism, with many, including brain injury charity Headway, branding Chelsea as irresponsible for allowing Courtois to play on. And it’s understandable why. Concussion and other head injuries are often overlooked in football; a sport which seems more concerned with broken metatarsals and torn ACLs. But this should no longer be the case, as the Premier League introduced a new set of rules regarding head injuries for this season.

Any player who suffers from a head injury must leave the pitch so their condition can be properly evaluated by the club’s doctors, and may not return to the field of play. Chelsea then clearly broke these rules, allowing the Belgian international to play on for a further 14 minutes, but it seems that they will not be punished by the Premier League for this.

In an age where players and managers are fined tens of thousands of pounds for criticising referees or using abusive language, there surely must be some sort of punishment for a club that allows its players to endanger their long-term wellbeing?

Chelsea are of course no strangers to their goalkeepers putting their bodies on the line. In a 2006 Premier League match against Reading, both their starting keeper Petr Cech and then his replacement Carlo Cudicini suffered concussions after attempting to prevent a goal. For a club that has such knowledge of these sorts of incidents, it really is both a shock and disgrace that Courtois was permitted to continue.

It is undeniable that head injuries are a problem in football that has yet to really be taken seriously. While serious collisions between players are not overly common, the repercussions can be very severe.

Perhaps understandably, due its more physical aspects, contact sports such as rugby and American football have much stricter regulations regarding head injuries. NFL players suspected of suffering from a concussion are removed immediately from the match, where they will be tested for both obvious and more subtle signs of head injury. All this is done in conjunction with tests that players undergo before the start of the season, so that any discernible change in wellbeing can be easily discovered.

While all this protocol may sometimes seem like a hassle to players and coaches – who are normally too pumped up for the game to admit any problem – it cannot be ignored. The damage suffered from concussions can last for decades, and repeated blows to the head affect athletes well after they’ve retired.

Indeed, former NFL quarterback, Brett Favre, is only now just beginning to feel the effects of all the hits he took on the field, despite retiring in 2011. He says he now sometimes struggles to finish sentences, remember words and has severe memory gaps from his playing days.

It may seem unfair to compare the blows sustained in a heavy contact sport to those experienced in football, but the realities are scarily alike. A 2011 study found that heading a football in excess of one thousand times a year is similar to suffering a mild traumatic brain injury, which damages five different sections of the brain.

Although this may sound like a lot, it works out at less than three headers per day, which, for a professional player, is virtually nothing. Add in potential clashes of heads, elbows and kicks, and modern day footballers run a great risk of causing themselves serious harm later in life.

That is not to suggest that heading the ball should be banned, but it does show that more care must be taken when it comes to head injuries, especially ones which leave the player out cold.

A player wouldn’t be expected to play on with a torn hamstring, so why a concussion? Until this issue is addressed, then it will continue to cause a headache for the sport, and not just those on the pitch.

 

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