The NRL announced yesterday that it has fined the Bulldogs (a possible) $20,000 under the new concussion rules (half is suspended). Is that a suitable amount? And will the Bulldogs appeal as they are hinting?
First of all, the NRL is to be praised for taking the issue of concussion seriously. In fact, it has shown enough concern to have formulated an entire policy for the recognition and treatment of it (see here for more). Advances in science and technology have tilted the balance of risks in favour of pre-emptive action, even if some of the linkages are unclear at this point.
There are many reasons why the NRL has been active in this area, which centre around the links between head trauma and future brain dysfunction suggested by (admittedly) foreign research, and is very much a nod toward risk management and long term damage mitigation.
Of course, not every contingency can’t be planned for. For example, while some concussions are quite obvious, even to those sitting in the bleachers, some concussions don’t present symptoms for up to 24 to 48 hours. How a sideline test can pick up on this type of injury is anyone’s guess. Well, actually, it’s not – it can’t. This is precisely why the NRL needs to be so strict in enforcing this rule.
It’s also a reason, by the way, why a mandatory sit-out-period is not advisable. All concussions are different, meaning recovery times are different – it could be hours, or several weeks depending on the knock and the individual). This is why we have further testing to assess when full recovery has been made, and only then should a player be allowed to train and compete again. The only mandatory rule I would support at this point is at least one week off subsequent to consecutive concussions (eg. Liam Fulton and Joel Edwards so far this year).
The short history of the rule has been fairly impressive, and many of those not returning to play any further part in the match (13 of 27) would more than likely have been pushed back onto the field in years gone by.
The enforcement of the rule is the important point here, and it must have a strong deterrent as it’s centrepiece. Now, that might also entail a suite of options, all the way from fines, tiered fines for repeat offences, deregistration of medical staff, and loss of competition points (the actual thing past coaches and staff have desired to protect by sending players back onto the field).
Have the NRL achieved this with what appears to be a very light $10,000 fine (with the same to be paid upon another breach)? It’s unfortunate that the only conclusion to that question at his point is no. The good news is that it’s early days and the policy can be strengthened, and the very first thing to be done is to remove the idea of suspending a fine of this nature. That’s ludicrous.
Consider that the fine the Bulldogs are (initially) being asked to pay is the equivalent of that payable for the relatively innocuous charge of criticising a referee’s performance with a little too much vigour. That doesn’t make sense. If this issue is so serious, it needs a far harsher penalty structure.
If the $10,000 was all the Bulldogs were likely to pay, then they would be well advised to take the medicine, keep their traps shut, and do much better next time. But there’s the rub – it’s not all they are likely to pay.
This particular fine applies to an incident late in the match against the Sharks where Josh Jackson’s head knock was inadequately assessed under the NRL concussion policy guidelines. It’s there on video. There’s no disputing it, really. There was no test of five key signs. And the fact it happened so late in the match is more damning than excusable.
But the sight of James Graham floating about with the pixies against Melbourne after repeated heavy knocks was noticed by everybody except the Bulldogs coaching staff and trainers, and for that they are likely to be found in breach of the guidelines once again. This means the suspended sentence will have to be paid, along with (I presume) the new fine, which I would expect to be $20,000 straight up at a minimum. If the first fine is suspended for a first offence, surely a larger fine might be in order for a repeated offence so quickly?
Instead of $10,000 being deposited into the NRL’s Christmas party fund, it’s going to be more like four times that in my opinion, if not more (if the NRL wants to send a message to clubs, especially repeat offenders who aren’t taking the rules seriously, to get on board).
The Bulldogs are therefore likely to roll the dice and argue abstruse points of the law and attempt to cast reasonable doubt on the process, the level to which the guidelines were adhered to and so on. In other words, use the burden of proof to their advantage (though I don’t see it being successful).
Questions still remain, however, for the operation of the policy.
Why are we seeing this catch-up in the please explain notices? Should these concussion reports not be delivered immediately post-match, and any further investigation be similarly swift?
And why is there not an independent doctor (whether NRL-administered, local hospital staff or other accredited person) present to remove all suspicion from the club and it’s medical staff?
At the end of the day, the spirit of the concussion guidelines is player safety, and cynical attempts to sidestep them not only increase the risk of injury to the player, but to the game itself.