Rugby League Will Be Totally Unrecognisable In 5 Years
Would you let your child play rugby league?
What if you knew the odds were likely that they would develop a brain disease that causes depression, wild mood swings, memory loss, suicidal tendencies, and violent acts towards loved ones?
The answer seems obvious, but a lot of Australian parents will soon be pondering that very question, as evidence mounts that contact sports like rugby league cause a brain condition called CTE in a vast number of participants.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is caused by repetitive concussions, and micro-concussions -- small jolts to the brain that don’t result in outward symptoms but still cause cumulative damage.
It’s these micro-concussions that are the hidden danger, as CTE often takes decades to present. From there it’s rarely good news: behavioural and mood issues, violent outbursts, and, in many cases, suicide. CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously, which is why it has taken so long for the science to catch up.
In June, a landmark study found evidence of CTE in the brains of two former Australian National Rugby League players, one of whom was Canterbury Bulldogs player and coach Steve Folkes.
This was the first definitive link between CTE and rugby league, and it’s a game changer.
“The changes in the two brains were distinctive, definitive, and met consensus diagnostic criteria for CTE,” said Dr Michael Buckland, who led the study.
“I have looked at about 1,000 brains over the last 10 years, and I have not seen this sort of pathology in any other case before.”
CTE has been a major talking point in American football over the past five years. One recent study examined the brains of 111 ex-NFL players; 110 of these showed evidence of CTE. The study proved controversial due to selection bias -- the brains studied were from deceased donors already suspected of suffering CTE. A second study with much less selection bias found that at a minimum, about 10 percent of NFL players suffer CTE -- but the upper threshold could lie anywhere between 20 and 50 percent. It goes without saying that these findings are alarming.
Unlike, say boxing, where the inherent violence is very obvious -- the ultimate goal being to knock your opponent unconscious by punching them in the head -- rugby league was considered to be relatively safe. Like American football, it relies upon a mainstream audience in order to survive. It is the casual viewers, not the extreme, passionate ones, that makes rugby league so lucrative. It is broadcast at primetime, on free-to-air television. It draws in children and grandparents alike.
It is also this mainstream audience that will result in its downfall. Many casual viewers of rugby league didn’t sign up to be complicit in inserting ticking time-bombs inside players’ heads.
The big sponsors will be spooked too. If they can flee en masse when a radio commentator says something misogynistic, how many of them will stake their commercial reputations on supporting a pastime that involves young Australians having their quality of life drastically and tragically reduced?
Once CTE can be diagnosed in living players, things will get even more frantic. The NRL will have to draw a line in the sand when it comes to how much brain damage is too much to disqualify a player from ever taking part in the sport again. How is this possibly done? Once we know exactly what happens when a player gets his bell rung, there will be no way to unring that bell.
The NRL’s own concussion guidelines explain that concussions are “relatively common” in the game, with “5-7 concussions per team per season”. That doesn’t seem too drastic, until you do the maths. With 16 teams, and an average of six concussions a team, that’s 96 concussions spread over 200 games. And that’s just the type of concussion that sees a player taken out of a game for a head injury assessment. There is no way of tallying the hundreds of micro-concussions that occur throughout the course of a single game.
Helmets seem to be the obvious answer, but this isn’t the case. Dr Rowena Mobbs is a neurologist who works in cognitive disturbance, neurodegenerative diseases and traumatic brain injury. She explains how helmets may actually add an element of harm.
“It is suspected that helmet use may result in worsened concussion risk overall,” Dr Mobbs explains. “Head protection is not necessarily of assistance in reducing the burden of concussion.”
Dr Clare Fraser is leading a study examining the causes, assessments and treatment of concussion in Australian contact sports. She also agrees helmets aren’t the answer.
“The headgear hasn’t protected the Gridiron players in the USA,” she tells me. “Indirect forces through the body, not just direct head injuries, can be transmitted to the head causing concussion. Headgear doesn’t prevent those sort of injuries.”
So, what’s the answer? For the game to survive, we will need to see drastic changes in how it is played.
But what will that look like? Not like rugby league, that’s for sure.
If we're serious about protecting players, the first thing that will have to go will be junior league, which removes the feeder system that the NRL relies upon. Then in the professional game, the types of tackles allowed will have to be reduced to holds, which will be fiercely monitored. Then, once the jolt of collisions is shown to be just as risky as a hit to the head, tackling could be banned altogether. But if you ban tackles from rugby league, what is left?
One thing is certain, half a million TV viewers aren’t going to tune in on a Saturday night to watch a game of Oztag.
But players' health is more important than viewers' weekend entertainment. In the face of CTE, we're left with no other option than to fundamentally change the game.