Head-On

Our beloved codes – union, league, NFL – where we excel – but at what cost? The impact of contact sports on the brain will have a growing long-term impact on the lives of those who participate, many of who are of Polynesian descent. INNES LOGAN reflects on his own experience of getting smashed and wonders how today’s top players will fear in the future as their codes become harder and faster.


Waka Nathan(far right) with other NZ Maori legends (L-R) Pat Walsh and Mac Herewini at Eden Park. Photo credit: Malcolm Mulholland

 

It was early 1979. As a fifth former at Kelston Boys High in West Auckland, I eagerly took part in a game of league during a lunchtime break. Touch hadn’t been invented, but we weren’t really playing full-on tackle, either. It was more like a grab and wrestle.
 

Being reasonably quick and wary of getting smashed, I preferred to stay out wide thinking it was safer. In a split second I saw an opening if I angled my run infield and timed it just right … except my timing wasn’t as good as the guy who blindsided me with a ferocious perfectly-timed tackle in the ribs. The impact was brutal enough, but not as brutal as the back of my head hitting the hard ground.
 

I lay there dazed, staring at the sky amid the whoops of laughter. The guy who tackled me came over and asked if I was alright. With an aching head and blurred vision, I let out a faint ‘yeah’, got back on my feet and eventually back into the game.
 

I was keen to show I wasn’t a wuss, especially as the guy who tackled me was a skinny, ginger-haired, freckly white guy. But I felt physically sick and my head hurt for days,
 

The demon tackler was Geoff Morton. He went on to play Auckland premiership rugby league for the Northcote Tigers, earning a reputation as a tackling machine.
 

Although I’d continue to play rugby for the next decade, I never faced a tackle like that again.
 

In recent years the long-term impact of collision sports like rugby, league, American football, boxing and the UFC is becoming increasingly apparent. Sports reporter Dylan Cleaver wrote a superb series of articles in the NZ Herald in March. It profiled a number of rugby greats going back to the 1960s, including All Blacks legend Waka Nathan, who have dementia, in which it is claimed rugby played a part. Those claims are pretty strong.
 

We first raised the issue in our SPASIFIK March/April 2013 Issue 55 following the suicide of NFL legend Junior Seau.
 

After decades of denial about the damage, the sporting codes themselves are beginning to acknowledge and address it. But there are still too many instances of players taking heavy hits, appearing dazed and reappearing on the field soon afterwards, particularly if it’s a key player involved and the stakes are high.
 

Sadly, high stakes aren’t restricted to the professional side of the game.
 

There’s significant and growing prestige attracted to secondary school level rugby, with professional club scouts and financial incentives in abundance on the side-lines.
 

I fear for our young ones.
 

Besides having to deal with external expectations (school and often family, who see a lucrative professional contract as a way to a better life) and the fact the odds are still stacked against them in terms of “making it”, they’re participating in a physically and mentally demanding environment in bodies that are still young and developing.
 

As a sports-mad follower – which led me to a career in sports journalism – I used to laugh at my mother-in-law if she happened to come in while I was watching rugby union or league on TV. She’d wince when she saw someone get smashed or fall awkwardly.
 

“How would their mother’s feel watching this?” she would say (and still does).
 

I didn’t care, unless it was someone from my team. Even then, it was due to the potential downside effect of their absence. Seeing Vodafone Warrior Shaun Johnson break his ankle against Manly in 2015, effectively ending his and the Warriors’ season, springs to mind.
 

Now I’m in my 50s, I understand how my mother-in-law feels.
 

I get the fact that Polynesian players generally have the perfect physical attributes for football codes. And I don’t begrudge those with an opportunity to earn a living far more lucrative than many would otherwise have achieved.
 

But everything comes at a price. The long term damage can no longer be ignored. As the footballing codes install procedures for players who appear to have suffered head knocks, the sports scientists and conditioners are maximising the physical potential of their athletes – it’s their job.
 

The likely result? Collisions that are even harder and faster.
 

There’s a saying in sport - short term pain, long term gain.
 

I’m now wondering if the term is now more apt the other way around?
 

Below is a trailer of the movie Concussion featuring Will Smith, which exposes the scientifically proven long term damage the sport has inflicted on its athletes.  

 

 

 

S.N-16