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Sport accused of ‘marking own homework’

Thu 22 Jul 2021

Headway has welcomed the findings of a parliamentary inquiry that has accused sport of failing to reduce the risks of concussion.

The Digital, Communications, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) heard from sporting bodies, sportspeople and campaigners, including Headway, as part of its inquiry.

DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP said: “We’ve been shocked by evidence from athletes who suffered head trauma, putting their future health on the line in the interests of achieving sporting success for the UK.

“What is astounding is that when it comes to reducing the risks of brain injury, sport has been allowed to mark its own homework.

“The Health and Safety Executive is responsible by law, however risk management appears to have been delegated to the national governing bodies, such as the FA. That is a dereliction of duty which must change.”

Reacting to the report, Peter McCabe, Chief Executive of Headway, said: “This is an important step forward in the campaign to better protect people from the short and long-term risks of concussion.

“We are grateful to the committee for inviting us to contribute to this important inquiry. The report makes a number of clear recommendations, all of which we broadly support, although some questions remain.

“Improved collation and monitoring of data will help us to better understand the extent of the problem, particularly at grassroots level, while governmental support with treatment, the funding of research and education would also be welcomed.

“The committee’s criticism of governing bodies in sport is clear. This issue is not new and yet for years sport has been able to play down its significance, with little or no scrutiny from the government.

“For too long it has been left to charities such as Headway to hold sport to account and we agree with Julian Knight that this has to change. Sport has had long enough to get its house in order and the time has come for the government to intervene.

“It has been almost 20 years since a coroner recorded a verdict of industrial disease in the case of former England and West Brom footballer Jeff Astle. In any other industry, that would have led to greater scrutiny from the Health and Safety Executive, but sport has been allowed to govern itself and we have been seeing the consequences for some time.”

Grassroots sport

In his evidence to the committee, Peter highlighted the importance of elite level sport setting a good example for those who play sport at grassroots level to follow – a concept at the heart of Headway’s long-running Concussion Aware campaign.

He told the committee: “Elite sports have a responsibility to set a good example to youth and grassroots sports.

“If concussion is not taken seriously in elite sport, that is going to be happening on a Saturday morning when youngsters are playing, where there aren’t ambulances waiting at the side of the pitch.

"Concussion must be taken seriously and if somebody sustains a bang on the head they need to be withdrawn from the field of play and you need to adopt a precautionary approach."

Independent doctors

Among the recommendations made by the committee was for UK Sport to pay for a medical officer to be present at every major sporting event and take sole responsibility for preventing athletes from competing if concussion is suspected.

“For many years Headway has called for independent doctors to be used in professional sport. While working in partnership with team medics, these doctors would be responsible for deciding whether or not a player is fit to continue. This would relieve the burden on team doctors and physios who may be placed under intense pressure.

The report also recommends the establishment of a UK-wide minimum standard definition for concussion that all sports must use.

“We welcome the call for all sports to work from one singular protocol,” said Peter. “At present, the situation is too confusing – particularly for young people who participate in a number of sports.

“But protocols are only of value if they are properly implemented. Prior to the recent Euro 2020 tournament, UEFA required all participating teams to sign a Concussion Charter.

“And yet high-profile head injuries, including France’s Benjamin Pavard who admitted to being knocked unconscious, that resulted in players being allowed to return to the pitch show that until authorities start enforcing these protocols, they will remain a pointless exercise.”

The report does not specifically address the undeniable dangers of boxing, despite saying that the government ‘has a duty to ensure that sporting activity, at every level, bears no unnecessary risk’.

In giving evidence, Peter asked the committee why it was spending so much time focusing on football and rugby while ignoring the dangers of boxing: “If the government is to take responsibility for preventing unnecessary head injuries in sport, it has to tackle the issue of boxing.

“Sports such as rugby and football have come under significant scrutiny for the way in which they are dealing with accidental head injuries. But boxing, where the objective is render your opponent senseless by repeated blows to the head, continues to go under the radar.

“The ball has been repeatedly dropped by sports authorities when it comes to concussion. It’s now been passed to the government by means of the recommendations of the DCMS Committee and we will be watching carefully to see how seriously this report will be taken by the government.”

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Headway - the brain injury association is registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales (Charity no. 1025852) and the Office of the Scottish Regulator (Charity no. SC 039992). Headway is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England no. 2346893.

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