Sport in the UK

Part of Social Security – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 4th February 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 9:15 pm, 4th February 2019

Since I have hardly got any voice, I might not make the five minutes—and I do have a cough, I might say to Gavin Newlands. I am only going to speak about concussion in sport. My doctor has told me that I should not really be here tonight, but I care about this issue passionately, so I want to speak about it.

On 19 January 2002, Jeff Astle died. He was a very famous player for West Bromwich Albion. When the coroner came to examine his brain, it was decided that he had died from heading the ball. It was termed an industrial injury and yet, still today, we have made remarkably little headway.

Ben Robinson died on 29 January 2011. He was just 14 years old. He had had concussion and then went on to play again, and later that day, or two days later, he was pronounced dead at the local hospital because he had suffered from double impact syndrome, where effectively, the brain sort of explodes inside the head. His family have done an amazing job, as have Jeff Astle’s family, in trying to keep the issue of concussion in sport alive.

There have been many recent issues. Last May, the 17-year-old Adrien Descrulhes died after a head injury in France. Also in May last year, the 18-year-old Canadian, Brodie McCarthy, was killed in a rugby match. In December, Nicolas Chauvin, an 18-year-old student at Paris Descartes University—he was a flanker in the academy at Stade Français—was also killed following a similar accident. That is one of the reasons why the French rugby union is campaigning for changes in the sport, which I think we need to listen to very carefully.

If anybody saw the Chelsea versus Bournemouth match the other day, they would have seen David Luiz, the Brazilian player, receive the ball very hard on the head. Interestingly, some of the spectators sort of revelled in the violence of that moment. One person wrote:

“Poor old David Luiz getting a bullet in the mush seems very popular with a lot of your following”— meaning the opposite team. He said “Terrible” and then he added:

“Must admit did a thumbs up myself”.

This is one of the problems. In some sport at the moment, there is a kind of glorification of such violent moments, and we need to think very carefully about that.

In the United Arab Emirates match against Australia in the Asian cup quarter final, Fares Juma Al Saadi clashed heads with Mathew Leckie, and then he went back on. He then played a few days later in another match and even the players’ union, FIFPro, questioned whether the protocols had been properly adhered to.

The significance of this, first and foremost, is that there is still remarkably little understanding of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is the steady acquisition of more damage to the brain by virtue of lots of small concussions. Individual events may not have done an enormous amount of harm, but they may over time. I have a terrible fear that many of my constituents who have played rugby many, many times and have been concussed many, many times, who are now in their old age or in their middle age and who worry about fatigue, depression, anxiety, memory loss and early onset dementia, may have acquired this because of the successive concussions that they suffered in sport. The thing is that concussion, in many people’s minds, is what happens when someone is knocked unconscious, but that is about 10% of concussions. There are a lot of other different symptoms from concussion, so it is very misunderstood.

In youth sport, concussion rates are 18 times higher in rugby, five times higher in hockey and twice as high in American football—those are USA figures. Unfortunately, when I asked the Government for statistics for this country, I was told there were none, which means we have no idea how many concussions there are in sport at the moment. Some sports are getting better, but the Government do not keep the information. It is important that we change that.

My impression is that football is making progress only because it is terrified of litigation, which is a terrible mistake—it should care about the players for heaven’s sake! Research funding is minimal in this field, and as for the protocols in football, it is preposterous that, although the Football Association and the premiership have made some strides in recent years, FIFA still does not allow subs to come on, as happens in rugby. Subs are necessary because it takes 10 minute to do a proper assessment at the pitch side. It cannot be done in three minutes, and any ref who thinks it can is living in cloud cuckoo land, and dangerously so. Players and coaches often think they know best, but the only person who knows best is a doctor, who knows what they are talking about. If in doubt, sit them out. We can save lives and people’s brains.