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Gordon Campbell on sports injury, and the WM3 aftermath

Gordon Campbell on sports injury, and the WM3 aftermath

Imagine if there was a party drug known to kill a number of teenagers around the world each year – and which, over time, had been linked to hundreds of thousands of them being likely to develop Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease later in life. Politicians would be rushing to ban it. At the very least there’d be a major educational campaign to alert schools, parents and the relevant authorities about the dangers, right?

Yet concussion caused by contact sport poses just such a risk.

The fact that Wallabies half back Will Genia is even being considered to play against the All Blacks tomorrow – after suffering two substantial head knocks involving at least one concussion earlier in the week – is a sign of how cavalier the sports authorities are (in this part of the world at least) about something that is arguably far more dangerous to young people than the drugs and alcohol that command the headlines.

Contact sport is part of this society. As this US report says, being knocked out and getting back up again is almost a rite of passage, and proof that you can take whatever life dishes out. That’s not going to change. Still, if parents are happy to allow children to participate in contact sports at school – and thus run the risk of exposing them to lasting brain damage – then at least they should be fully informed about the risks involved.

Given we’re talking about very long term effects, its not surprising that it has taken a very long time for the linkages to be made. This study however is a good start -
and it pinpoints that it is moderate concussion in youth that renders sufferers twice as likely as a control group to get Alzheimers later in life.

“Moderate” is defined as a concussion where the confusion, disorientation and short-term memory loss last for more than 30 minutes but for less than 24 hours. A less than 30 minutes effect is negligible. Anything above that is cause for genuine concern, and has now been linked to greater incidences of Alzheimer’s Parkinsons, and other degenerative ailments.

For all the money being poured into drug education programmes in schools, is there a schools programme warning parents and school coaches about the dangers of sport-induced concussion? Unfortunately, it may take a high profile case to drive the message home. In the US a few days ago, seven gridiron players launched a class action suit to sue the NFL over their concussion-related injuries.


The logic involved is the same one that applies to drug and alcohol use by the young. Namely, that the human brain is not metabolically or chemically mature until the early to mid 20s. Putting an immature brain at risk from contact sport is perhaps no different – in terms of the objective consequences – to exposing it to drugs and alcohol. It is up to parents and schools whether they wish to enable children to play contact sports that put them at risk of concussion, and thus take their chances on lasting damage.

There is also an onus on organisations like the NZRU and ARU to demonstrate that they don’t shrug off concussion as being an inevitable part of the macho culture of the game. Standing down Genia after the first head gash this week would have been appropriate. Even considering letting him play after a second head knock is utterly irresponsible – and not only to Genia.

As with taking drugs, contact sports are a gamble. The Salon article linked to above sums it up:

Whether or not to play contact sports, especially after having sustained one or more concussions, isn't an easy decision. There are no right answers. In the end, it boils down to athletes using their heads off the field to determine what using their heads on the field might cost them.

***

The West Memphis Three Aftermath

In the wake of the release of the WM3, the role of key persons publicly instrumental to the outcome will continue. Apart from the WM3 website campaigners I’m talking about heroic figures like Eddie Vedder, Winona Ryder, and Nathalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks – who were all willing to risk the career damage from actively campaigning out in public for the WM3’s innocence and freedom, during the long years that Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley and Jason Baldwin were in jail.

The battle goes on. At the Toronto Film Festival next month, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky will unveil the third in the series of Paradise Lost documentaries [the working title is Paradise Lost 3 : Purgatory] that were central to turning a local miscarriage of justice into a global campaign.

Reportedly, Berlinger and Sinofky have been scrambling to film a coda about the WM3’s release to add to the film by screening time. Next year, the Canadian director Atom Egoyan will release his film based on Devil’s Knot, the definitive book on the case by investigative reporter Mara Leveritt, whom Scoop interviewed for an exclusive story about the WM3, back in 2008.

Berlinger, meanwhile, is locked in an ongoing battle with the oil giant Chevron, over his brilliant documentary Crude, which examined the social and environmental damage caused by the oil industry in Ecuador. The scope of document seizure being sought in court by Chevron has major implications for investigative journalism in the US, and especially for the ability of journalists to protect their sources, as Scoop reported in this story last year.

Perhaps if Peter Jackson is looking for another (directly related to the WM3) cause, he could consider Joe Berlinger’s plight – which goes to the heart of the ability of journalism to hold power to account.

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