Rugby Player Welfare Part 4: Trying to Shed Light in a Land of All Black

Jeff Hull@@HullatHomeContributor IIIAugust 26, 2013

The final part of our series looks at the stigma of brain injury in rugby.
The final part of our series looks at the stigma of brain injury in rugby.

Hot on the heels of our recent interview with the International Rugby Board's (IRB) Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Martin Raftery, we are pleased to bring you the final installment of our Bleacher Report series on player welfare in rugby.

To read Part One of the series, click here.

To read Part Two of the series, click here.

To read Part Three of the series, click here.

In Part Two, we brought you word that the latest attempt to conduct investigative research into long-term brain injuries in rugby was encountering difficulties. Despite locating the study in the Aukland University of Technology (AUT), in New Zealand, researchers have been unable to find enough willing participants to move forward with their work.

During our talk with Dr. Raftery, he made these comments about the study: 

We selected New Zealand because everyone there follows rugby.  We thought it would be easy to collect volunteers there.

Its unclear whether people are not participating because their worried about what they might find, or because they just don’t think there’s a problem.

We have made inroads recently but it remains difficult.  To be honest, we just don’t know why we’re not getting volunteers.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

The lead on-site researcher at AUT, Dr. Patria Hume, seemed slightly more certain she knew the reason, in an interview published by the New Zealand Herald.

There seems to be awareness of the study, but we've had trouble getting people to contribute.

Someone said to me 'I really don't want to know how my health is', which is fine, they don't have to know the results if they don't want them. Just fill in the questionnaire so that we know them.

Taken in combination with recent comments made by Rory Lamont and others, such reports speak volumes about the stigma and avoidance that typify the topic of brain injury within the sport of rugby.

Despite numerous attempts, it proved difficult to find players at the elite level who were willing to speak on the record about why concussion, CTE and player welfare remain such taboo subjects within the game.

But the questions loom larger than ever.

Why was Australian international George Smith allowed to return to the field after being knocked cold during the recent Lions Tour?  

Why, in a nation that lives and breathes rugby, is it so difficult to find a few hundred volunteers to complete a relatively small study on this issue?

How serious is the urge within modern day players to avoid such subjects, and can anything be done to correct it?

For some perspective, we spoke with Jay Fraga, a retired athlete and founder of The Knockout Project, a foundation created to raise awareness about brain trauma within elite sports.

Spreading the Word

Jay Fraga was an bike racer who was forced from his sport following repeated head injuries. He understands the mindset of invincibility that many pro athletes have.

I was always a "mind over matter" athlete. I feel like anyone who is very good at what they do athletically has a superior mindset. That mindset is of the highest importance to compete at a high level.  Elite athletes believe that they are faster, better, and stronger than their opponent. That is the greatest gift that an athlete can have when it comes to competition. It is also the single biggest flaw that one can have when it comes to acknowledging head injuries. 

I know that with my own head injuries, as well as those of many of my friends, our mindsets effectively allowed us to gloss over details that were incredible warning signs. Physical symptoms such as blurred vision, headaches, and nausea were dismissed as any number of things. Obvious cognitive symptoms, such as not knowing what year it was after a crash, were shaken off as cobwebs that would pass and not as a troubling sign that my brain was reeling from trauma. 

Such stories have surely been replicated hundreds of times over on rugby pitches, at both the amateur and elite levels. These stories focus on a factor not discussed in our previous reports: the willful choice made by athletes to ignore or dismiss serious warning signs.

New Zealand's Conrad Smith is one player who has suffered repeated concussions, and yet continues to play the game at the highest levels on an almost weekly basis.

Why do such players continue to hurry themselves back on to the pitch, sometimesas with the recent George Smith incidenteven within the same game?

Mr. Fraga believes he knows the answer.

Today, the majority of my friends who compete at a high level treat even the mention of concussions as taboo.

I believe they do it because it represents a threat to their confidence. All of us understand that confidence is paramount. The concept of any kind of injury, much less an invisible neurological one, is competitive poison for someone who has an objective of winning in sports.

So, they shut it out.

If you're talking about it, they avoid you.

I think this problem is universal to sports of any kind. If you translate the above to a sport where there is a lot of money or national pride at stake, that makes that concept even more potent. You also run into an issue where discussion of concussion is a threat to a player losing competition. We all love our sports, whether we get paid to do them or not. The threat of your sport being taken away from you is a powerful motivator to remain silent.

in my case, I only began to start seeking answers once it was clear that I had crossed a very distinct line. The symptoms were so bad that they couldn't be ignored. 

That silence is becoming more and more recognizable within the rugby community. Whether it is money, pride or team loyalty, rugby players across the globe continue to struggle with prioritizing their long-term mental health over the immediate concerns of performing on the pitch.

Our series has endeavored to touch on all sides of this incredibly important topic in rugby, but as we draw it to a close one fact remains inescapable.

The individuals most able to intervene to protect their long-term health are the players themselves.

Across the United States enrollment numbers for youth football are dropping, but it is within the rugby community's power to avoid such a fate.

Those who are attempting to shed light on this problem must continue to drive forward their message, even in places where such issues remain in a state of All Black.

Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

Unless otherwise stated, all material was obtained first-hand.

To follow the author on Twitter, click on the link below.