In 1906, the rules of American college football were overhauled. The comprehensive rewrite was the consequence of immense public outcry: too many players were dying on the field. Anti-football sentiment that had been bubbling over since the 1890s hit a furious boil in 1905, with newspapers tolling the deaths: 45 players dead over the first five years of the century, 18 that year alone, and serious injuries skyrocketing. President Theodore Roosevelt called representatives of Yale, Harvard and Princeton to the White House and threatened to ban the game unless they cleaned it up.
Roosevelt was hardly puritanical on the matter of violent sport; he was a devoted fan of football precisely for its physical risk. “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports,” he reportedly said only a couple of years earlier. “I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.” Yet the mounting public pressure meant his hand was finally forced. The rule changes included outlawing the flying wedge, a notorious formation in which a glut of players essentially attempted to mow down the defence, and the institution of the forward pass.
It’s an instructive anecdote as the revelations mount up about the devastating toll that contact sports – American football included – are having on the brains and bodies of players around the world.
The revelations last week that a group of former rugby players in the UK have been diagnosed with dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and intend to take legal action against World Rugby and the Rugby Football Union in England, is only the latest in a very long line. The NFL in the US has already paid out damages to thousands of former players, as well as faced damning evidence about the prevalence of traumatic brain injury and long-term neurological damage sustained by them. In Australian rules football, the recent insurance payout to former AFL player Shaun Smith for “total and permanent disablement” due to head knocks sustained during his playing career comes on the tail of revelations earlier that former greats Graham “Polly” Farmer and Danny Frawley were both found to have had CTE after their deaths in the past year. It’s a serious issue in the round-ball game too.
And then there are combat sports like boxing. Ground zero for concussion and head trauma research, the boxing community has known for nearly a century that repeated head trauma causes debilitating brain damage – since 1928, researchers have been showing that long-term fighters can suffer profoundly crippling neurological impairment as a consequence of a lifetime of having one’s brain being thrown about inside their skull – that is, if one of those punches doesn’t kill them.
Boxing is an illustrative example in other ways, too: namely, the abject failure of many of its trainers, administrators, promoters and even regulators to face up to that knowledge, to properly educate participants on managing the risks of the sport, and to put player safety before the glory of the win.
Contact sport is in dire need of a reckoning and it is increasingly clear that those of us who watch it, and celebrate it, and especially those of us who play it, are the ones who will have to bring that about. Nothing about that is easy. It is tremendously challenging to come to terms with the idea that your sport – this all-encompassing physical practice that makes you feel so alive – might destroy you, or may be destroying the people you dearly love to watch play. It is confronting to admit that maybe the reason it feels so exhilarating is precisely because of the danger it poses, and some of that may be lost. It is a burden to acknowledge it may be up to us to demand change.
But players, spectators, communities, those of us who love these games, have more power than we think we do. It is not only in elite sport that we should be demanding change. Anyone who has received a single concussion knows how debilitating even that temporary impairment can be. We do not yet know just how damaging an amateur career on the footy field might be in the long term, but we do know that every concussion is dangerous, and even those heavy hits that do not give us concussion can damage the brain.
It is not enough just to tell players they need to take responsibility for their own health. Studies show it does not matter whether they are amateur or elite, players hesitate to report suspected concussions – even when they understand the dangers – and are reluctant to take the requisite recovery time for fear of letting teammates down. That is the kind of power a sports team has.
What if that power were turned towards keeping each other safe? What if, for example, teams refused to take to the field without mandatory education in concussion recognition and management for everyone involved in the sport? In Ontario, Canada, Rowan’s Law – instigated in 2016 after the sports concussion-related death of a teenager, Rowan Stringer – mandates just that: annual concussion education for every person who participates in contact sport. The objective is nothing less than changing the culture around concussion – and recognising that the first step to players and coaches supporting each other’s health is understanding what they’re dealing with.
Of course, that is only the bare minimum of what’s required. Changing the very structure of these sports to keep players safe is a monumental task – and that is what we really need to come to terms with. The kind of pressure we must put on the corporations and administrators that resist change for fear of how it may affect the bottom line is far beyond what many of us have tried to do. But who better to lead us into a new era of contact sport than those who love it most? Retired players across these sports are already sending out the calls for change. It is time for the rest of us to back them.
• Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the author of After the Count: The Death of Davey Browne, published by Viking and long-listed for the 2020 Walkley Book Award