Tim O'Connor: Why should GAA refs not have the same powers as rugby on concussion?

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Brian Adam
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Donegal team doctor Kevin Moran, a member of the GAA Medical, Scientific, and Welfare Committee, thinks referees in GAA should not have the same power as rugby referees to remove players suspected of having a brain injury.

One has to ask then: why?

The background, as set out in the Irish Examiner last Monday, is that there is a motion before Congress that would change the blood sub rule so that a player suspected of concussion must, on the instruction of the referee, immediately leave the pitch to receive attention, and a temporary substitute could replace that injured player.

Dr. Moran accepts players are unreliable and cannot be trusted to remove themselves, but feels that giving this power to referees could cause “massive insurance and legal implications”. He also feels that players could feign a head injury to allow additional substitutes to be used.

So, the obvious next question: is he right?

The GAA guidelines for referees make it clear that “any player suspected of having sustained a concussion, should be removed immediately from the field and should not return to play on the same day.” This is the universal standard practice for concussion: if in doubt, sit them out.

But it goes on to state that “a referee cannot remove a player if he suspects a concussion. He should, however, ask a medic to assess a player who has displayed signs of the injury. In the case of no medic being present, advise the person in charge to remove the player.”

This puts a referee in an impossible situation. He or she must leave on the pitch a player who he or she thinks may have a brain injury. Even if the referee wants to get this player off the pitch for their own good, to protect the player, the game leaves the referee hostage to others.

A question that immediately suggests itself is: how can there be an insurance or legal liability for getting a player off the pitch and making sure that player is not more badly hurt? Where is the second injury to give rise to potential liability if the player is removed from the game and cannot come back to get injured?

But, even then, the idea that the Courts would impose liability on a referee for protecting a player from harm and making the call to follow the universal principle recognised in the GAA’s own rules that a player with a suspected concussion should immediately leave the pitch seems bizarre. Imposing liability for not doing so, yes; but for taking reasonable steps to follow the overall policy and protect a player from harm?

If this were the case, rugby, which does require the referee to make the call and remove a player suspected of concussion, would be in trouble, would have been shut down long since. And yet it hasn’t been. Rugby protects itself by giving referees this power, in exactly the same legal and judicial environment. The suggestion that the GAA would suddenly find itself in huge trouble does not seem to stack up against this counter-example.

The claim that it is “‘almost impossible’ to legislate for concussion in the rules” is also strange and does not stand up to scrutiny. Other sports have done it, more are doing it. The GAA itself stresses the same principle of “if in doubt, sit them out”. The idea is that referees do not have to make an assessment requiring professional diagnosis.

Instead, there is a simple, hard and fast rule, protecting players and referees.

There are even specific concussion recognition tools — the CRT5 — to allow non-medics to recognise concussion. The GAA’s guidelines make it clear that if a CRT5 is carried out, a player should not return to play: again, a simple rule, protecting all concerned. Far from being “almost impossible to legislate for concussion”, it seems the GAA has, and the motion just tries to follow that and give referees the power they need.

There comes a point where one has to wonder why these difficulties are being raised, when they do not stand up to scrutiny. Is concussion perhaps seen as a rugby problem, rather than a part of player management for every sport?

The suggestion that players might ‘fake’ a head injury is so worrying. Of course that there are players not playing the games in the spirit of pure sportsmanship is not exactly news. There are, doubtless, players who would try it on with concussion, as with anything else. If they do, they will miss games, and be booked off training while going through the return to play protocol. If they keep doing it, they will be sent to specialists. The costs and time loss mount up, so there is no gain for them doing it; and where there’s no gain, players just stop doing it. This is not a reason to risk injured players.

The aim of an “if in doubt, sit them out” culture is to get everyone in a team setup, including an injured player, honestly reporting concussions, aware that playing concussed won’t help the team to win. It cannot but be counter-productive to suggest tactical faking is a reason not to make it easier for referees to get players with a suspected brain injury off the pitch.

Whether or not this motion needs its wording to be tweaked is one thing. But if the suggestion is the GAA, and the GAA alone, cannot give referees the power to protect players who might have had a brain injury, then it might need a bit more detail to explain to players and parents why others can offer this protection but the GAA can’t.

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