Mario Fenech comments and new movie Concussion put spotlight on sports injuries
Pittsburgh Steelers centre Mike Webster in 1988. Photo: AP
Head injuries sustained in sporting contests are in the spotlight.
The issue roared back into the news when the fondly regarded former rugby league champion, Mario Fenech, once captain of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, put the issue of brain damage front and centre when he admitted he had suffered significant head knocks during his 15-season career.
"I would've been knocked out eight or nine times a season. I knew that I was going to pay a price one day," Fenech, 54, told Fairfax Media this week.
Jockey Desiree Gill. Photo: Supplied
His admission came as the AFL has introduced new rules this coming season requiring umpires to more strictly police tackles "with a lifting, slinging or rotating technique" after several controversial incidents in 2015.
And on February 18, the latest Will Smith film, Concussion, opens in Australia and will examine how loathe football administrations were to act on gridiron players' brain injuries.
Smith portrays a Nigerian forensic pathologist who fought against efforts by the US National Football League to suppress his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brain damage suffered by professional football players.
Jockey Carly-Mae Pye. Photo: Facebook
Two years ago, Fenech went public about being brain damaged and says his life has improved dramatically since being prescribed Aricept, a drug commonly used to treat dementia.
"You look at how hard-headed I was," Fenech said. "I remember getting knocked out that many times and I would never leave the field. You know why? Because I was a lunatic. And I was the captain, I wasn't going anywhere and I was not leaving the field. I would stay on with concussion. Now, I wouldn't have a choice."
Newcastle Knights winger James McManus will sit out the 2016 season after he was concussed last July and sat out the rest of the year after failing to pass the NRL's stringent protocols on players recovering from head knocks.
Jockey Carly Mae-Pye on the racetrack. Photo: Facebook
McManus said on Tuesday he needed further time out and his playing future was unclear.
However, according to former Newcastle Knights champion and Sydney Triple M breakfast radio host Matty Johns, many former rugby league players were in a bad way.
"Many of them have got difficulties holding a job or a long term relationship, there's alcohol abuse and depression. And it's not just a few, there's quite a few," Johns said.
Jockey Caitlin Forrest. Photo: Facebook
"For people of my father's generation, it's much more extreme. It's that loss of muscle mass, a genuine blankness in their eyes, that real fragility in their handshake ... a lot have brain damage issues, I have no doubt this is related to head traumas during their careers."
Concussion is a relatively common injury in many sporting and recreational activities.
Sports Medicine Australia believes Australian football, rugby league and rugby union have among the highest rates of concussion of any team sports in the world.
Friederike Ruhle, from Germany, came out of the saddle during a gallop and died soon after being taken to hospital. Photo: Supplied
Reported incidents range from three to 10 concussive injuries per 1000 player hours, or about five concussion injuries per team per season, regardless of the level of competition.
While football codes have started taking heat over brain injuries, for many years boxing seemed to be the sole sport considered a health hazard.
Little wonder perhaps. After all, a knockout – or brain damage – is the objective in professional boxing whereas scoring points is the main objective in amateur boxing.
James McManus of the Knights is tackled to the ground in August 2013. Photo: Getty Images
Last September. Davey Browne jnr, 28, was knocked out 30 seconds from the final round of his 12-round, IBF super-featherweight regional title fight against Carlo Magali of the Philippines at the Ingleburn RSL Club in western Sydney Browne initially regained consciousness but then collapsed and was rushed to Liverpool Hospital where he died.
"It's 30-odd years since we've had a fatality or a serious injury," Australian Boxing Federation president John McDougall said.
The Australian Medical Association called for combat sports like boxing and mixed martial arts to be banned at the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, over concerns the sports are causing "irreversible injury" as fighters try their hardest to win by hurting one another.
Matty Johns. Photo: Steve Christo
Once the most gentlemanly of sports, cricket has seen the bouncer grow into an integral part of the game's armoury and the entertainment.
But Phillip Hughes' death 15 months ago, from a blow to the head from a bouncer in a Sheffield Shield match, was a rude shock to that marriage of weapons and amusement. Hughes' death evolved into a moment of national grief. Helmet manufacturers altered designs, but only a minority of cricketers use the added guards below the back rim of the headwear and the people who run the business of cricket quickly put it all behind and resumed the game.
But Australia's most dangerous sport must surely be horse racing.
Actor Will Smith in the movie Concussion.
According to the National Jockeys Trust, the occupation of a jockey is the second most dangerous in the world.
Only working on North Sea fishing boats is considered more perilous.
Little wonder then that there is a requirement for an ambulance to follow the field in every race.
Mario Fenech. Photo: James Brickwood
A jockey weighing 50 to 60 kilograms riding a 550-kilogram thoroughbred at 60km/h does not allow much margin for error.
Since 1850 when the industry started keeping records, 878 riders have lost their lives in Australia, according to the Trust.
The statistics are grim for jockeys.
There are 500 falls around Australia each year, 89 per cent of jockeys who are thrown will need medical assistance, 9 per cent of them have fallen more than 20 times, each year 40 per cent of jockeys will have a fall that will prevent them from riding for five weeks and 5 per cent of those falls involve career-ending injuries.
In recent years, the Trust has spent close to $2.7 million helping 260 jockeys, apprentice jockeys and their families faced with serious injury, illness and even death.
Four women riders, Queenslanders Desiree Gill and Carly-Mae Pye, South Australian Caitlin Forrest and German Friederike Ruhle, died after accidents on Australian tracks between November 2013 and last July.
Australian Jockeys' Association chief executive Paul Innes said each year four or five jockeys suffer a permanent disabling injury.
"Tragically over the next decade we can expect 12 to 15 jockeys to die on the job in Australia," he said. "Fifty jockeys will suffer career-ending injuries including paraplegia, quadriplegia and severe brain injury."
In December Racing Australia announced a new standard helmet would be mandatory for jockeys but many have complained it is unsuitable or uncomfortable.
Negotiations are continuing to ensure the helmet is adopted nationally.
Football codes in Australia got really busy addressing the issue of concussion after a US federal judge approved settlement of a class-action lawsuit between the National Football League and thousands of former players in April last year. The cost was up to $US5 million per retired player for serious medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma.
The new Will Smith film traces how gridiron is coming to grips with the issue.
He plays forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu who carried out autopsy on a Pittsburgh Steelers star player, Mike Webster, who was found dead in his pickup in 2002 and found evidence of brain damage. He also found CTE symptoms in other dead retired footballers but the NFL repressed his research until it boiled over into the public arena amid player suicides.
The film is not about concussion.
Certainly CTE is connected to concussion. Scientists are not sure how. But one thing is sure: it would have been nearly impossible to promote a film called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, starring Will Smith.