How do you protect brains inside heads that don’t want to be protected?

Boxing, featured, League, NRL, Rugby League

Two things happened in the past week to cause me to think long and hard about the issue of concussion in rugby league.

One was the desperately sad revelation that Mario Fenech is fighting the devastating effects of CTE, induced from years of head knocks. Anyone who remembers Fenech’s fearless rampages in the 1980s and ’90s couldn’t help but feel their heart squeezed by the story of his cognitive decline in later life, to see the great warrior unable to even remember how great he was.

The other thing that gave me food for thought was that last Thursday night, ex-league champion Paul Gallen engaged in two boxing bouts on one night, fighting fellow former leaguies Justin Hodges and Ben Hannant. Following his fights, current player Matt Lodge made public his terms for a fight with Gallen.

There is for some reason a close relationship between rugby league and boxing.

Fenech himself liked to pull on the gloves from time to time, and it’s become quite the fashion nowadays for players both past and present to jump in the ring and have a swing.

Gallen, Hodges, Hannant, John Hopoate, Solomon Haumono, Sonny Bill Williams, et al: it’s a long list and getting longer. And if generally these players don’t tend to approach the heights of the model for all leaguies-turned-boxers, Anthony Mundine, it at least seems to be an effective way for them to work off any excess aggression that their footy careers didn’t manage to discharge.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 05: Mario Fenech looks on during a South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL training session at Redfern Oval on September 5, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

But in light of the Fenech revelations – not to mention similar recent stories concerning Royce Simmons and Steve Mortimer – I couldn’t help but wonder: if rugby league players are so uncaring about their own health that they will happily add boxing to the risks that their career already involves … what chance have we of ever achieving meaningful action to minimise head injuries?

After all, while people wrangle over the best way to deal with the occupational hazard of head knocks in rugby league, here are players and ex-players lining up to compete in a sport in which inflicting head trauma isn’t an unfortunate side effect: it’s one of the main aims.

Of course we know that rugby league officialdom doesn’t really care much about concussions: they’ve been dragged reluctantly to implementing measures like HIAs, but the NRL’s clear desire to make consequences for dangerous tackles as light as possible shows that preventing injuries is right down the bottom of their list of priorities.

However, at least in rugby league bashing someone in the head is, technically, against the rules. As opposed to boxing, where it is both legal and keenly encouraged. This is a sport in which athletes literally try to knock each other out.

And this is the sport that hard nuts like Gallen, after many years of having their heads thumped in tackles, decide they’d quite like to have a whirl at. Presumably they miss the concussions and find it hard to adjust to life without them.

But hey, that’s their choice and they’ve every right to take whatever risks they like in pursuit of their sporting passions. But the question remains: how do you effectively deal with the issue of concussion in a sport in which many of the players themselves seem completely indifferent to the risks?

Paul Gallen punches Justin Hodges.

Paul Gallen punches Justin Hodges during their bout at Nissan Arena. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

We know that rugby league players, when in the heat of battle, give little if any consideration to the safety of their opponents.

They’ll attack the head – or indeed cannonball the legs or flip a foe upside down and risk breaking his neck – with no concern at all for what damage they might do, and it’s only the threat of punishment that has any moderating effect – and that effect isn’t as strong as it might be given that the punishments they’re being threatened with are rarely particularly harsh.

This is obviously a problem: rugby league needs to crack down much harder on dangerous tackles, but it would definitely be helpful if players could be convinced that not slamming an elbow into another man’s face was the right thing to do regardless of what the referee or judiciary might do in response. It’d make the struggle easier if blokes actually didn’t want to break each other’s jaws.

But the league-boxing nexus shows that the problem is even worse: players aren’t just unconcerned with what might happen to opponents’ heads; they’re cavalier about what happens to their own. They’ll gladly take the risk of copping the odd illegal tackle on the field, and then they’ll slip into some big shorts and invite someone to pummel their bonce completely legally.

So what chance have we? We are going to see the Fenech situation play out again and again as time goes on, and although we fret about it and demand action be taken, the chances of real practical change seem bleak, when the people in charge, the people inflicting the damage, and the people copping the hits all seem united in their view that everything’s fine.

And when it comes to the crunch, how do you stop men from suffering head injuries, when they really really want to?

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