Belfast Telegraph

Sporting culture normalising injury, warns Ulster University academic

By Sarah MacDonald

A former international athlete and Northern Ireland academic has warned that competitive sport is headed towards a concussion crisis if a culture of denial is allowed to continue and if contact sports continue to "normalise pain injury".

Dr Katie Liston has called for debate on how sports players and organisations continue to emphasise "bigger and faster" in sports such as rugby, GAA and football.

Dr Liston lectures in sports sciences at the University of Ulster. Speaking at a conference at Trinity College in Dublin on sports and ethics, the academic warned that sports like rugby, at a professional level, were seeing a higher number of concussive incidents.

"What we don't know is whether that is because there are more of them or whether our understanding of them is growing," she said.

In her address to the conference Dr Liston spoke about the dangers of a culture of denial which hides the extent of concussion.

Dr Liston said she was particularly concerned about sports at the amateur level.

She said: "[There isn't the] same level of medical care and support away from the field of play and at the actual games; so, if there is a crisis there is certainly greater risk for that group of players.

"What I am advocating along with all the neurological and medical developments that are needed, is to take a step back and ask ourselves, among our local sports clubs and amateur clubs, what is actually happening in the culture of sport at the moment?

"We're normalising pain and injury, so we need to take a step back and ask what are the implications of that for brain injury?

"We need to put the health of players - young and old - at the heart of what we do.

"Understanding injury should not just be in neurological terms but also cultural.

Referring to the radical proposal to ban tackling in schools' rugby, which was regarded as a step too far by world rugby, she acknowledged it would probably result in the schools' game being restricted to sevens rugby or tag rugby for young players.

She said: "Instead of that being a positive thing, it is portrayed as bad."

But Dr Liston highlighted how in New Zealand weighted rugby pitched players of similar size and weight against each other.

She also referred to calls for the heading of balls to be banned for young football players. She said: "If it is shown that this can protect the health of young players, then it is absolutely necessary and we should be doing it."

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