Matt Burke: I'm Worried About My Brain But Will Always Be Thirsty For The Big Hits
"Even if your head has fallen off, get back in the line!"
This was the mantra we used to hear from our coach before games if you suffered a head knock and fell to the ground. I can hear the gasps now but at the time it made perfect sense.
How does that make perfect sense, you ask? Put simply, if you are not in the defensive line, you are no use to anyone -- the result is a gap in the line. If you stand up, there are no gaps and therefore the opposition see no holes and attack elsewhere. As I said, simple.
Did it happen to me? Yes indeed… from what I can remember.
As a kid growing up in Sydney, I played all sports -- rugby union, a bit of rugby league, athletics, cricket and soccer. All sport was played without wearing any protection on my head. If someone did wear headgear or a helmet they were immediately labelled soft and became a target.
The UK's Football Association (FA) has announced that children aged 11 and under will no longer be taught to head soccer balls in training. Protecting the growing brains of youth seems like an obvious call, but it's also a massive one -- for a governing body to take a stance like that, even if it is the right thing to do, they would no doubt be ready to receive some pushback.
The announcement reminded me of my own experiences playing soccer as a kid. I vividly remember one particular game where I must have headed the ball a million times. After the game, I set off on my bike, swaying side to side as I went up the road, wondering what was wrong with me.
And I was unsettled, of course, by news that the AFL's Polly Farmer had been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease believed to be the result of repeated head trauma.
I played rugby union at a senior level for almost 20 years -- 14 of that professionally. Throw in the schoolboy rugby and the soccer before that and my exposure to head trauma would be significantly higher than the average person walking the street. But would I take back the experience and walk another path? No chance. In my early 20s, I always used to joke that by the time I was 40 they would have a pill to relieve all the aches and pains that went with playing sport.
Let’s just say I am still waiting.
I have had both shoulders reconstructed, my left knee reconstructed, my right knee is a mess, my hips are trashed, as is my lower back and my neck for that matter. I have had my nose fixed and I have lost count of how many stitches I have had.
I can show you all the scars, but the thing with concussion is that there are no scars. We’re finding out now that CTE exists but it can only be identified after death. Sadly that doesn’t really help for the here and now. The scary part is the associated illnesses and symptoms of the brain disease.
Does it concern me? Yes it does. It has to, given the hits I've taken over the years. Watch the video above for those.
Getting a concussion or being concussed was never about bravado. It was just what happened to you. And then you got up. And when you fell over a couple of times the crowd would let out a cry of "Wheeeyyyyy!". We didn’t know any better. You didn’t want to let your mates down. I suppose it was a sign of weakness if you stayed down. Anyway you could, you would claw your way to somehow stand upright.
It happened to me in the second Test against the British and Irish Lions tour in 2001. I tackled three big humans in succession, all over 115 kg. On the third tackle I got my head in the wrong place. It felt like I had just gotten off a boat. I was rocking everywhere.
But an injury to a teammate meant that I was asked to stay on the field -- which I did obligingly, or perhaps not. I'm not sure. Either way, I scored 25 points that night and I can't remember much of the game at all.
So can we do something about it? Yes we can. I know rugby union has been very proactive on changing the laws around high tackles, with protection of the head and neck now paramount. Yet the irony is that I still sit there and say “what’s wrong with that tackle?”, knowing full well what the damage can be. It’s a mindset that needs to change.
But what about the kids? How do we protect them and still allow them to play without fear? My daughters play rugby union. Should I deny them the satisfaction of scoring a try or making a try-saving tackle because of the threat of a head injury? No, I don’t think so. But do I hold my breath every time they are tackled? Yes.
'If in doubt, sit it out' is the slogan that parents, coaches and trainers are passing on to the players. The problem is, when your brain is bouncing around, can you really make a clear decision for yourself? At that point, the medical staff have to make the call and be firm in their stance that the player must pass the Head Injury Assessment Protocol (HIA) before taking the field again.
With the literature about the dangers of CTE becoming more readily available, non-contact versions of sports will start to grow and become more popular. This will be encouraged by parents and their safety concerns for their children. What we can’t then do is throw a stigma around those sports by saying they are not the ‘real deal’. They need to be accepted and, in the future, presented as very real alternatives to sports that are traditionally contact based.
Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, however, it needs to be said that there will always be a thirst for the “big hit”.
My role now as sports presenter means we show highlights of games, and we know that what resonates with the public are the big collisions. They go on the highlight reel. But it's definitely a matter of when things will change rather than if. Because, eventually, it won't just be the assistants standing by the coach's side, making decisions about when a player is cleared to play after a collision.