We’re told Ponga’s latest head knock wasn’t concussion. So, what was it?
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I accept, of course, that the NRL protocols on concussion were observed with Kalyn Ponga last Saturday in Coffs Harbour, but I am confused. To reprise, Ponga is the Newcastle Knights maestro with a singular capacity to split defences – while also having a troubling recent history with concussions.
After being knocked out for the fourth time in 10 months in round two this year, he went to Canada for a special concussion assessment and was judged good to resume. On Saturday, playing against the Sharks, he got what seemed like a light head knock in a relatively innocuous tackle gone wrong, and went down like a sack of spuds.
To my layman eyes, he looked clearly concussed – and suffering such a concussion from what seemed to be light contact would be consistent with what we know of the susceptibility of those who’ve had multiple head knocks to suffer worse effects than others not so afflicted.
But no! While the NRL’s protocol has it that the head injury assessment (HIA) is only to be administered when there is doubt if it is actually concussion, apparently there was some doubt because Ponga was removed from the field to have the HIA, and soon returned, having – to my amazement, and that of others – passed!
Rowena Mobbs of Macquarie University, who specialises in concussion, closely examined the footage and, from a distance, without being able to examine Ponga personally, had the same impression as me – and she was enormously surprised at his return to the field of play.
“In my interpretation of the footage on Ponga,” she wrote to me, “there was a loss of response, perhaps knocked out, and stiffness of the hand that can indicate ‘cortical or brain stunning’, all clear signs of concussion. This was followed by slowness and ataxia or unsteady movements that again, even in isolation, represent likely concussion.”
Kalyn Ponga ahead of his most recent head injury assessment last weekend.Credit: Getty
She adds: “It was pleasing that Ponga recovered quickly and ran from the field unassisted. However, rapid recovery does not alter the initial diagnosis of concussion, in my opinion.”
But all the NRL protocols we can assume must have been observed, for after their own doctors presumably examined the same footage, and certainly Ponga himself, the young man was given the all-clear to go back on the field. So we know it can’t have been deemed concussion after all. There is no substitute for examining a person in real life: sometimes video footage doesn’t tell the whole story. And so I must ask again, and it is important that the NRL provide answers on this issue. So, what was it? Was he just winded? Was it something else?
And if it was those diagnoses or any other, how do they connect to the “stiffness of the hand that can indicate ‘cortical or brain stunning’,” and symptoms of “ataxia” spotted on the footage by Mobbs?
And for those taking aim right now at me rather than the NRL – for example, claiming the head-impact from the tackle was not innocuous at all, but a big hit – does that not make it even more remarkable that Ponga wasn’t concussed in that tackle? I mean, here was a bloke with a history of concussion, who goes down as if shot and doesn’t move.
I repeat: I accept the NRL doctor’s rulings. They were the person best placed to make the assessment.
But an obvious tweak to the protocols would be for doctors to write down their diagnoses of what they deemed it actually was, instead of concussion. Having their “bell rung”, or being “stunned” – both often trotted out by dinosaur non-medical people as explanations – won’t cut it. Both those hackneyed explanations mean concussion.
And yes, I know you may disagree, but that is because you don’t get it. When the stakes are this high, with more and more former players in their 30s and 40s displaying obvious brain damage from concussion, for what possible reason would the game not take every precaution? That is not just a moral duty, but a move to prevent legal Armageddon.
There is heavy litigation coming down the pipes for the NRL and when it arrives they can count on – entirely removed from this Ponga episode – endless footage being played over the years of clearly concussed players being sent back on the field, as proof that despite the NRL being endlessly warned of the dangers, they still didn’t provide a safe environment for players.
I humbly submit that columns like this – and oh, alright, another 50 just like it that I have penned – will be proof positive that the risk had been brought to their attention many times.
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