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A Sporting Chance.

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In May of this year a player in the French Rugby Union Team Toulouse, Florian Fritz, suffered an injury to his head after colliding with the knee of an opposition player.  The footage of the collision and its aftermath is accessible on Youtube. What followed has been condemned by international experts and by the head injury charity Headway.

Immediately after the collision Fritz was seen to be bleeding heavily from his head wound. He was in a state of confusion and agitation. He was showing clear signs of concussion.

He was helped from the pitch but was clearly unsteady on his feet.

He then had 10 minutes of additional treatment in the dressing room (the maximum time allowed under the pitch side concussion assessment (PSCA) or “concussion bin” rule). At that point he simultaneously stunned, delighted and horrified onlookers by returning to play in the match.

Fortunately for Fritz there do not appear to have been any significant repercussions from his premature return to the game. Nor did the lack of detailed assessment of his apparent concussion result in any significant impact upon him. Nevertheless the fact remains that at top level, a player with  a significant and serious head injury, was given a brief period of treatment and then sent back into what can be a brutal sporting environment.

A number of significant authorities have expressed concern about the return to play of head injured team members. Former IRB medical advisor Barry O’Driscoll, a campaigner for better concussion programmes in rugby, said – “It is shocking players are still being allowed to return to the field after such obvious signs of concussion”. Fritz’s coach, Guy Noves, played down the incident. He said – “I have been knocked out, played on and was fine, as you can see, I am still standing here”. The Chief Executive of Headway, Peter McCabe said “this appalling and shocking incident is a timely reminder of just how much work is still needed in order to change attitudes towards head injury in sport”.

The father of a 14 year old boy who died in 2011 after playing on with concussion spoke of his distress at seeing the footage. Peter Robinson, father or Ben, said “Seeing that incident feels like a massive slap in the face for our family”.

Generally, top level rugby has a record of providing excellent medical support to players injured during a game. Spectators are used to seeing play halted for on pitch assessments to be carried out and for treatment to be administered. We have seen the extraordinary care that is afforded to players who may have suffered spinal injuries.

We have also seen players bravely return to the field of play after cuts and bruises, dislocations and minor fractures. The sight of Fritz returning to the field is an altogether different affair. Regardless of how brave he may have been and how much he wanted to play a part in the game he deserved to be protected from further injury and damage.

For those of us with young family members playing competitive sport we have to hope that the authorities monitoring those games do so with more consideration than was afforded to Florian Fritz.  The authorities and medical professionals involved in sport must also recognise the cost to players and themselves if they expose an injured and vulnerable player to further damage that may be career or life threatening.