Dangers for sporting heroes

The All Blacks start their international season tonight with injury worries at the back of mind for players, coaches and the public.

There will be few Highlanders fans who did not grimace when fullback Ben Smith hit the pitch last weekend with a sickening thump. His head bounced on the ground and the immediate thought was concussion - something Smith has suffered in the past.

Mid-field stalwart Ryan Crotty, whose presence in the All Black backline is seen as essential by coaches, has a history of concussion but will turn out in the black jersey tonight.

Much of the debate this week has been on the make-up of the All Black squad but there are other issues which should be talked about.

The Otago Daily Times this week highlighted the huge influence concussion is having on sport, particularly on top rugby players.

An entire team of New Zealand professional players has been lost to the game because of concussion in the past decade. Last year, 17 All Blacks were affected by concussion, about a third of those who took to the field in the black jersey.

Players have seen their careers disappear through a hard knock to the head from a misplaced tackle or an elbow or knee to their head.

Brain-injury experts in the United Kingdom have warned football bosses to urgently overhaul their medical protocols after the alarming and extraordinary chain of events following Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius' Champion League final concussion.

Karius was blamed for Liverpool losing the match, letting in three easy goals in the 3-1 loss to Real Madrid. Five days later, it was revealed Karius was suffering from concussion after receiving an elbow to the head. Yet, he was allowed to play on. Karius was assessed by Liverpool's medical staff after the match. Although the goalkeeper signalled to the referee he had been struck by Sergio Ramos' elbow, there was no on-field call for treatment and the incident was only widely picked up following replays.

There are now calls for football to follow rugby union in introducing temporary substitutions to allow players to leave the pitch for in-depth assessments.

Although the sight of top players leaving the field for assessments is frustrating to fans, the safety of sports people is paramount.

There are many documented cases of how American football players go back on the pitch time and time again after suffering huge knocks to their bodies and heads. Some of them go on to commit out-of-character offences because their brains are muddled after the pounding they have taken. One analogy is two freight trains colliding with each other on the field; someone has to lose.

In America, girls' football causes a high proportion of concussion injuries. Yet, research shows standing down those injured girls is not always carried out.

New Zealand has National Concussion Guidelines, created because concussion is a serious injury to the brain and occurs frequently in this country.

Among the recommendations is immediately removing from play or activity anyone suspected of concussion. Extra caution is required for child or adolescent athletes.

In New Zealand, head injuries are most frequently sustained during rugby, cycling and equestrian activities, with 11% of sports-related concussion claimants having multiple concussions within a two-year period.

Evidence shows, with repeat concussion, people may experience a decline in general health and quality of life up to 10 years following the injury.

Early onset dementia is just one of the issues some head-injured sports people will face. Even a single incidence of concussion has been found to lead to a significantly higher risk (17%) of dementia.

As the All Blacks run out tonight against France, it is time for fans to engage once again with their national heroes.

Also, it is time to remember several of these young men are putting their future health on the line by wearing the silver fern on a black jersey.

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