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Peter Canavan: Progress has been made but we all must do more to tackle concussion

Jarlath Óg Burns
Jarlath Óg Burns
Ben Robinson, who died while playing rugby in 2011

By Peter Canavan

It was an important week for the GAA in terms of player welfare. The story around Armagh's Jarlath Og Burns got people talking about concussion again, and the dangers of it were rammed home when former Galway player Cormac Bane was forced to step away from club football due to repeated blows to the head.

It's the kind of issue that can become fashionable for a while only to fall off the agenda again, and when that happens people can become blasé about it. You only have to look at some of the recent examples from top-level soccer for proof of that.

Fabian Schar admitted to playing on for Switzerland even though he said he was "knocked out for a few minutes".

David Ospina, a goalkeeper with Napoli, fainted after playing on despite having a heavily bandaged head.

Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen was allowed to return to the field in a Champions League game before it became clear that he could not continue.

To their credit, the GAA have been trying to tackle the issue. They were one of 11 governing bodies at an international conference on concussion in sport in Berlin a few years ago.

Out of that came a global summary of best practice in concussion prevention, diagnosis and management which shapes the guidelines within the GAA.

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But there's always more that can be done to build awareness and improve education around something that could be fatal.

Rugby has led the way in that regard. Perhaps they had to because there are so many collisions in the sport, but the death of schoolboy Ben Robinson from Carrickfergus focused minds.

He was playing an Under-15s match for his school in 2011. He picked up a couple of bangs but was allowed to return to the pitch. The final knock led to his tragic death.

In the inquest afterwards, one of the most significant findings was that there was a huge gap in not just officials but players and coaches when it came to concussion. They simply didn't know what they were dealing with.

In the GAA, we have so many games played at so many different levels. In many cases there will be no medical expertise at a match, so the onus will have to fall on others to remove any risk.

GAA players are trained to accept a certain amount of pain. Refusing to play on after an injury is sometimes interpreted as weakness. But if ever there was a time to err on the side of caution it's in those cases, particularly for those of us that work with children and young adults in sport. Their brains are still developing and we need to be extra careful.

In the GAA, the advice is to sit out the game for seven days in the event of a suspected concussion. Sometimes those seven days are taken as a target rather than a guideline.

Given that there isn't one clearly defined test to measure concussion, or the extent of it, and that different people can be affected in different ways, it's important to take all of the necessary precautions.

Coincidentally, the concussion protocols in the GAA were demonstrated in an incident that also featured Burns.

He was playing a MacRory Cup semi-final for St Paul's, Bessbrook a few years ago when he got a bang on the head. Referee Sean Hurson took the brave step of ordering him off the field.

As it stands, the GAA's processes put so much pressure on the medic involved.

If he's lucky, the player will be taken to the sideline and he'll get a minute or two to make an assessment. But in many cases they won't even leave the field and the medic is put in a difficult position.

Sometimes players are asked questions as part of their test which reminds me of Brian O'Driscoll's story about when he was trying to get back on the pitch against France in the 2013 Six Nations.

"Where are you?" O'Driscoll was asked. "The Aviva." "Who are you playing against?" "France."

"What's the score?"

Expecting the question, he had already looked at the scoreboard knowing that a quick answer might increase his chances of playing again.

"They've just got a try, it's 13 all, let me back on," he responded.

It demonstrates that players will do and say anything to get back on the pitch. I've been there and done it myself and put pressure on whoever was there to let me stay on.

I did that in a Club Championship match about 15 years ago. I was knocked out for a few minutes but insisted on playing on and ended up having to spend the night in hospital.

Giving a medic a frenzied minute or two on the sideline to assess a player mightn't be enough.

Rugby makes players sit out of play for at least 10 minutes and maybe there's something in that.

It's important too that, at the top level of hurling and football, they set the right example.

Armagh did that in the drawn game. I understand Jarly Og was insisting that he go back on the field but he heard a flat 'no' back and was withdrawn.

That was important because we've seen so many times that what goes on at elite levels trickles down through all the grades.

In any case, it's a message the GAA have to ram home: If in doubt, sit it out.

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