MARTIN SAMUEL: Football's attitude towards head trauma is baffling

MARTIN SAMUEL: The attitude towards head trauma is baffling… look at F1 and rugby on safety, they show football is still in the Dark Ages

  • The contrast between football and other sports towards trauma is clearly acute 
  • Romain Grosjean was left thanking those in F1 who helped introduce the halo 
  • David Luiz, meanwhile, was allowed to drive on Sunday despite his head clash 
  • There is a difference between the sports in their attitudes to health and safety 

The contrast could not have been more acute. In Bahrain, Romain Grosjean was sending a video message from his hospital bed thanking those in his sport with the foresight to see that the halo to protect the drivers’ cockpit would save lives. That day it had saved his.

Meanwhile, in London, Arsenal’s doctors passed David Luiz fit to drive home having received seven stitches in a head wound after a collision that left Raul Jimenez of Wolves with a fractured skull. Luiz was told to call in if he got home and felt unwell.

And what if he felt unwell behind the wheel of his car? Why would any development have to occur in the comparative safety of his residence? And why might it not leave him confused or sleepy, and unable to competently make that judgment call? 

Romain Grosjean was left thanking the halo in his F1 car that ultimately saved his life on Sunday

Arsenal allowed David Luiz to drive home despite receiving seven stitches for his head wound

Gary O’Driscoll, Arsenal’s club doctor is widely acknowledged as one of the leading medical professionals with regards to concussion issues in football. His methods, his integrity, has to be trusted. Even so, there seemed a marked difference between sports in their attitudes to health and safety.

And yes, we perceive motor racing to be dangerous and in greater need of safety protocols. Yet F1 drivers are not dying from their involvement in the sport at the rate of retired footballers right now. So football’s apparently less stringent take on issues surrounding head trauma is extremely perplexing.

Concussion substitutes. Where exactly is the downside? Here is your player. He has just suffered a significant collision, involving a blow to the head. He may be concussed, he is quite possibly bleeding, as Luiz was. 

There is a marked difference between both the sports in their attitudes to health and safety

Why would you not want to replace him, temporarily, with another player who has not received a blow to the head, is not potentially concussed and is not bleeding? It doesn’t even have to be a permanent substitution.

If the injured player goes down the tunnel and passes a rigorous concussion test in less urgent conditions, he can return to the field, and his replacement to the bench. Happens in rugby all the time. And rugby union is a sport that only turned professional in 1995. How can it have overtaken one that legalised professionalism 110 years earlier?

No doubt Arsenal’s medical staff conducted all necessary concussion checks and were convinced Luiz was unaffected. Yet the macho culture at the heart of sport leaves any diagnosis that involves the contribution of the participant open to question.

Kieron Dyer recalls hearing Dean Ashton trying to run off a knee injury, where the noise of the crunch in the joint was audible with every step. Stuart Pearce played for West Ham on the Saturday having been told by doctors he was out for six weeks. He set up his own fitness test, which involved taking one of the youth players to a far corner of the training field, and booting him up in the air every time he tried to go past him. 

The macho culture leaves any diagnosis involving the player’s participation open to question

Head injuries are no different. Alan McInally said his father Jackie played with a fractured skull. Wore a protective headguard, thought it was harming his game, took it off mid-match. The family used to joke about it every time he forgot something. He died four years ago with dementia.

So sports people can’t be trusted. Grosjean admits he was one of the drivers who was against the halo at first – so was Lewis Hamilton.

‘The worst looking modification in F1 history,’ was his initial verdict. ‘There needs to be a certain element of risk,’ added Max Verstappen. That’s why you do not always listen to the athletes when it comes to safety. It’s not their priority; but it should be the priority of the sport.

Luiz came off at half-time, so something was up. Either he changed his mind about continuing, or the medical staff felt he was fragile, but that still left a significant period when he was an accident waiting to happen.

Grosjean admitted that he was one of the drivers who was against the idea of the halo at first

Some of the worst concussion-related injuries, the fatalities, did not occur with the first blow, but with a freakish, coincidental second on the same spot.

Ben Robinson, a 14-year-old schoolboy from Carrickfergus, died because he received two hits in quick succession. Whatever tests Luiz passed, letting him continue with a wound requiring seven stitches jars.

And, yes, we’ve been here before. Many times. We all love a bloodied hero. The same weekend eyebrows were raised that Luiz continued, other sports lovers branded Daniel Dubois a coward for not wishing to continue getting punched by a 17st 6lb heavyweight boxer on what we now know was a broken eye socket. The world of sport is not without its contradictions. 

This has happened before due to our love for bloodied heroes but football has been overtaken

There is meant to have been surprise within Arsenal’s ranks that Luiz played on initially, and further surprise that he was allowed home alone. Yet the biggest surprise is the glacial speed at which the concept of concussion substitutes moves up the agenda.

There was a time when Grosjean would have died. Now he sits in bed lauding the heroes who saved him. Not just at the circuit but in meeting rooms three years ago when they made a decision widely condemned as unpopular.

Football does not even have that excuse. Who opposes concussion subs? Who doesn’t support this baby step measure against head trauma? Why is the sport always lapped when it comes to any measure that does not end in rows of noughts?


DON GOODMAN – Missed six months after a horror clash with Huddersfield’s Steve Jenkins while playing for Wolves in April 1996.

PETR CECH – Suffered a depressed skull fracture in a collision with Reading’s Stephen Hunt in October 2006. He returned to light training a week later but missed two months of action and wore a rugby headguard for the rest of his career.

IAN HUME – An elbow from Sheffield United’s Chris Morgan fractured the Canadian’s skull in November 2008. He missed eight months but later went on to play more than 200 games, finishing his career last year with Pune City in India.

RYAN MASON – Forced to retire at just 26 in February 2018, 13 months after a sickening head collision with Chelsea’s Gary Cahill. Now campaigns for concussion substitutes and a ban on heading in children’s football.

MICHAEL KEANE – Hairline fracture saw the Everton centre back ruled out for a month after clash of heads at Bournemouth in August 2018.

CORRY EVANS – Blackburn midfielder suffered a fractured skull and shattered eye socket when caught with a high boot against Preston in January. Northern Ireland international came back in June.

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