Sports Wanderings: Head Shots

In recent years, there has been more awareness brought to the issue of sports injuries and concussions/head trauma.

Ontario passed Rowan’s Law, a private member’s bill, which will implement the 49 recommendations from a coroner’s inquest from the death of Rowan Stringer, a high school rugby player who died in 2013 from Second Impact Syndrome. It specifically deals with concussion management, education and awareness for concussion injuries and puts policies in place for school boards and youth sports to handle concussions.

To the credit of youth sports organizations from hockey to soccer, and every sport in between, all have adopted concussion policies. All have made concussion training part of the coaching or trainer certification process.

That said, there has been no real movement in discouraging and penalizing active shots to the head.

In sports like soccer, basketball and baseball, the chance for head trauma is lower, because body contact is a minimal part of the game. In hockey however, full contact at rep level or higher is allowed. Often times the penalty does not equal the severity of the contact.

Hockey has rules in place. A player who was seen giving a check to the head is given a ‘match penalty’, which is a five minute penalty to the team, and the player involved is out for the game. It does not mean they necessarily should have a hearing or a suspension. This does not go far enough. The rules rely on the on-ice officials seeing the offense, which does not always happen as they focus more on where the puck is than what other players are doing. Once the offense is seen, sending a player out for a game with minimal consequence is not sufficient.

The goal should be to lower the risk of concussion and other head related trauma. To do that, officials need to be more observant of what players are doing on the ice; and the penalties related to head contact need to be increased. All intentional head contact should be treated as a game misconduct, subject to suspension.

As one hockey parent explained to me, you cannot stop contact. If a player has committed to a check, and the receiving player turns last minute, it’s not a cartoon where you can instantly stop. That is where referee discretion, or if it comes to it, a review board, should step in.

Sports are good for personal development. It’s important to be active. While players can’t be bubble wrapped before taking the field or the ice, more needs to be done to prevent head trauma. That includes changing the culture of what is acceptable contact. A lot of movement has been made in a short amount of time, but there is still a great deal of distance to go.