Hard News by Russell Brown


More than a bang on the head

This week's Media Take programme takes its lead from the New Zealand Herald's Rugby and dementia dilemma, which is the most substantial media examination yet of the hidden toll taken by concussions in rugby union and rugby league, sports that many New Zealanders not only love but define themselves by.

This isn't the first time the Herald has tackled the issue – the first was in 2012, on the heels of new and alarming research – but this time Dylan Cleaver's series seems to have triggered a much greater response.

What was originally intended as a three-day campaign was extended as new accounts came in. Most notably, perhaps, that of All Black legend Waka Nathan:

On the day the Herald launched this series which investigates the links between head injuries suffered in rugby and dementia conditions including Alzheimer's, his wife Janis took him to the village library where they read the story about the Taranaki Ranfurly Shield team of 1964, and the plight of five players who have died with, or are suffering from, dementia.

It struck an immediate chord.

Dylan joins us on the programme, along with AUT researcher Alice Theadom, Rob Allen (brother of the mercurial All Black Nicky Allen, who suffered a fatal on-field concussion after a series of knocks over several years), Maori Sports Trust CEO Dick Garrett and Wairarapa clinical nurse and concussion researcher Doug King, who tells this powerful story:


You can watch the whole programme on demand here.

The issue has been driven in part by the growing recognition in the United States of a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is often asymptomatic until players retire, when it begins to show up as a range of cognitive and emotional problems. Salon last month ran a story suggesting the toll was particularly heavy among Samoan and Tongan NFL players, such as Mosi Tatupu and Junior Seau, who took his own life in 2012. Seau was never recorded as having suffered an on-field concussion, but a posthumous examination of his brain showed unmistakeable evidence of CTE.

Now, Bennet Omalu, the doctor who first identified CTE and whose story is told in the new biopic Concussion, has strongly suggested that OJ Simpson has CTE, noting that its behavioural symptoms "include explosive, impulsive behavior, impaired judgment, criminality and even mood disorders."

Although rugby union and rugby league have taken important steps in concussion management in recent years, Doug King's experience shows that the new thinking does not extend to the sidelines of club games. And even if the reforms can change the picture, it seems evident that there is a great deal of trouble already stored up from the past. It's about a hell of a lot more than a bang on the head.

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