News that former Newcastle Knights winger James McManus is set to sue the Newcastle Knights over a career ending series of concussions was met very harshly by the NRL community.
Straight away, with very little evidence at all being made public, many came to the conclusion that McManus was doing the wrong thing. You also had so called “experts’ predicting that once again Rugby League was about to come to an end because as always, the sky is falling with some people.
The true story is that concussion, its prevention, its treatment, and the long term effects, is a very complex story where one size doesn’t fit all.
Step back for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a player that is suffering from concussion, and ask yourself how you would face up to the fact that you may have potentially suffered a long term brain injury doing, not only something that you love, but something that made you a lot of money in the process.
The Risks Going In
I’ve written a little bit about this before. Any time you decide to play a game of Rugby League you had made the decision to take a risk.
Rugby League is a relatively safe sport when you consider the nature of it. The problem is, sometimes accidents happen. That is life. You can break your ankle walking down the street, or rolling it in a tackle. Sometimes shit just goes wrong!
The thing is, when you play the game, you know the risks. Its not like the ball is thrown to you and its at that moment your realise that “Hey…they actually want to tackle me!”. Especially once you have played enough football to become a professional player.
So, how do you weigh up those risks? How do you take the risk of playing football, get hurt, and then come out the other side of that looking for compensation? Its a tough one…
Put Yourself In The Shoes Of A Player That Deals With Concussion
You’re a young, physically fit man. You have extreme light sensitivity. Headaches that are terrible and constant. You throw up a lot. You’re losing weight. You sleep all day and you wake up still feeling tired. Is this the rest of your life? How will you cope financially if you don’t get any better?
If you were in almost any other field of work and you got injured on the job to the point that it impacted your ability to earn money for the rest of your life, no one would bat and eyelid. You’d look for compensation for your injury, and you’d either get it, or you wouldn’t.
If you’re an NRL player in this position, every man and his dog will have a say. None of them will talk to you. None of them will ask what you are coping with. All of them will just write about your situation having no idea what you are going through.
Is it worth it? When do you decide you need to pull the trigger on looking for compensation? How bad does your life need to be to go through a court case that will be as public as anything you’ve ever experienced in your already high profile life? How bad to you have to get to be willing to have your integrity, your heart, your guts and your motivation questioned?
What a rotten position to be in.
Blood, sweat, tears…and a potential brain injury. It is a lot to give a football team. Some would suggest you are financially compensated for your sacrifice, and the rewards can be massive. Still, all the money in the world doesn’t mean shit when your health is bad.
Football clubs love players, until they have no more use for them. A football club will push its favourite son out the door as soon as they think he has lost a step or someone better comes along.
How does a former players feel when they take legal action against a club? How quickly do you think they are made to feel like an outsider?
Imagine deciding to take legal action, knowing all of those invites to club functions will stop. Former players will look at your differently. Supporters who use to cheer you on now see you as the enemy, trying to tear the club apart, even as you sit in a darkened room to avoid light because you played your guts out for them.
It doesn’t take long for YOUR club to make you feel like an outsider.
Club Doctors Making The Right Call
If you are going to sue a club because of a decision a doctor made, you had better provide the courts with a mountain of evidence. It is very difficult for a court to come to a decision that a doctor didn’t give them best possible care at the time faced with the medical evidence and tests they had available at the time.
I always find it INCREDIBLE when people will watch a game, see a player leave the field, and critise a club doctor when a player has been cleared to return to the game. In 99.99% of those cases the critisism comes from someone that does not have a medical licence.
An NRL club doctor is not about to risk their reputation, their livelihood, or money in a potential lawsuit because some boofhead wants a player back out on the field before they are fit to return.
Sometimes people make out NRL club doctors to just be a bunch of morons. Not real doctors. Don’t fall into that trap. These are smart people. They know whats at stake if the wrong decision is made.
Did You Want To Get Back On The Field Too Soon?
If you start to get a few head knocks, and you start missing games, you’d better believe that there is a financial impact that comes from that. Every week you sit on the sidelines is an extra week you are giving a potential replacement to find their feet and shine. Every game you miss puts you further to the back of the minds of not only you own club, but other potential clubs you may end up moving to.
This isn’t a profession where you can just sit on the sidelines for a while and come back, be at your best, and have no hit to your earning capacity. Because of this, players want to get back out on the field as soon as they possibly can.
If you had potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, you were running just as fast as ever, your fitness was still good, you even feel a lot better than you did when you got your concussion…wouldn’t you be likely to decide to come back and make yourself available as soon as possible?
Saving Players From Themselves
We have all seen it happen. A player gets knocked unconscious and despite the fact they can hardly stand, they are arguing to stay on the field. Rugby League is an extremely tough sport, and anyone that runs out on a field knows what can happen out there.
Sometimes players need a third party to save them from further injury. It happens all the time with all sorts of injuries players pick up.
When it comes to something like a concussion, there are tests that can be done, but concussion isn’t an obvious injury like a broken arm. There are tests that can be done, but some of them are subjective. Some of them rely on the input from the player themselves.
Future Concussion Cases
Not too long ago players use to boast about how many concussions they had over their careers. So what happens to the game if even harder concussion prototypical are put in place?
What if a concussion see’s you being rubbed out of the game for 6 months? What if back-to-back concussions means you have to take a year off? What happens if we get to a point where three concussions means you have to take a medical retirement from the NRL?
How many players would accept being told they can no longer play the game at say the age of 25? Could you accept it? I don’t think I could. How many players would just look to play elsewhere anyway? There are plenty of playing options outside of the NRL.
There are a lot of Henny Penny’s> running around right now who are willing to tell you a court case regarding concussion will change the game forever. The fact is, Rugby League over the last 30 years has looked to keep up to date with concussion, its prevention, its treatment, and has never denied any evidence regarding any of those factors. If something new was found in research, the NRL changed how it handled concussion.
The NRL is not, I repeat, NOT THE NFL. It is a completely different sport. It has a completely different set up. It has always handled concussions differently. Its the NFL that was out of step with the knowledge base regarding the treatment and prevention of concussion, not the NRL.
So I doubt we would see any real changes to the game if a concussion case was lost in court.
What If A Player Was Let Down By The System?
I don’t think you’d find too many people in the game that would begrudge a player compensation if it came out that they were forced back out on the field while concussed.
Imagine talking to someone that was concussed, and then was told they had to go back out there because that is their job? I don’t think anyone would back a club, or individual that worked with a club, who said that to a player.
If a player was poorly handled by a club, as with any medical issue, I’d back them every step of the way in their fight for compensation from a club. Players know they take a risk when they play the game, but they also put their faith in medical staff to look after them and put their interests ahead of the club as well. If a clubs interests were put before a players health, you’re damn right that player should be compensation if something then goes horribly wrong!
This Is Not A Clear Cut Situation
People these days want things to be made clear. They want to know if something is right or wrong. You won’t ever get a clear cut decision like that when it comes to concussion. We know the risks, we know what might happen, we know that concussion effects some people more than others, we know that some people are more susceptible to concussion than others, but diagnosing it can be complicated by many different factors at times and the effects of concussion can sometimes not show itself for many years, and it can be exacerbate some lifestyle factors.
The moment a player gets concussed on a football field, a hundred different moments in time then play out. People see these moments from their own perspectives. As with anything involving humans, mistakes can be made, perspectives skewed, memories fail, and it can come down to a court having to decide what sounds like the most likely outcome in a situation that happened years ago to people under pressure.
Every case is different, and it should be remembered that if a player decides to take legal action, it may be a last resort.
So don’t be too quick to jump into the concussion discussion with your blinkers on and looking to attack one side or the other. Sometimes shit just goes wrong, and as it all plays out you realise, there are no happy endings to some stories.
A well known Rugby League writer, League Freak has established a reputation among supporters of the game for his fearless commentary and unmatched insight. With a reach that spans both sides of the globe, League Freak has produced an independent network that allows him to distribute content to his many thousands of followers. He is the owner and main author of LeagueFreak.com