Serious post time

Super Rugby - Crusaders v Blues, 5 July 2014

Not pictured: Colin’s flying mouthguard

I was going to post about tiki-touring all around south Auckland and how irritating it is when teams just don’t show up and how much I hate mud.

But then some serious stuff happened and I’m now going to make a serious fucking blog post.

Jordan Kemp, a seventeen -year-old club rugby player from Northland, is dead after two head knocks. And what adds to that punch in the gut is that when we found out, we weren’t surprised. No one is asking how this can happen. We know this happens, year after year, and the only thing that makes this newsworthy is how young this kid was.

Northland has been doing some great things in as far as concussion management. Jordan was eased back into play over four weeks just like we’re told he should be – medical clearance and everything.

Well, medical clearance by a GP from a small town with no specialist neurological training. Eased back into play by a coach who thought putting him in headgear would help prevent another head injury (note: it’s actually the opposite).

I’m not blaming those people, or the NRU, or anyone. I’m just pointing out that we are putting the health of our amateur rugby players in the hands of people who just don’t know how head injuries really work. Who are genuinely doing their best but their best isn’t going to stop people dying.

And I’m not saying I know squat in comparison. I’ve read a bunch of studies. I sit through RugbySmart every year.

And I am in charge of two teams, every game, where I have the power to ask a player to leave the field if I think they’re unsafe. How am I in a position where the life of someone – usually a child – could rest on a decision I make? I’m not fucking qualified! I put stuff on the internet and write things and laugh at Dad jokes!

This is my worst nightmare. Not just as a referee, as a person. Where I’m in charge of a situation and someone’s child ends up dead. I don’t know who the referee for that game was but I hope someone has got him and is hugging him and telling him it’s not in any way his fault; and that he gets professional counseling. He stopped the game. He did literally everything he could.

Someone in my office who will remain nameless and hates rugby says it’s about stupid people dying in stupid ways. Another relates the difficulty of watching her teenage son play rugby but she can’t stop him because he loves the game.

I know that feeling – I love this stupid game so fucking much, and since we’re not going to stop people who are passionate about rugby from playing, something more has to be done. And I’m not sure that we can do it, because of how we view injury and weakness and how much rugby is tied up with notions of masculinity in New Zealand.

Colin Slade looks like he’s about to cry all the time because he keeps breaking his jaw and two weeks in a row now he’s been smashed in the head so hard his mouthguard has gone flying. Kieran Read was back doing full-contact drills two weeks after a concussion, while his team hoped he would get medical clearance to play that weekend (spoilers: he didn’t). And I know that these two players are professionals and they are being looked after by the best doctors in the country – but they set the tone. We ask rugby players to be role models in things that are completely unrelated to the game, but not to be role models in terms of serious injury prevention?

I have no idea how to keep players who are in demonstrable danger of dying off the field. I know the steps we have taken have been successful and serious head injuries in rugby are on the decline.

But I know it was the second knock that killed Jordan, like it was the second knock that killed a player in North Harbour last year, like it was the second knock that killed a teenage girl playing in Canada two years ago.

So we have to start doing something. Because otherwise we’re just going to keep not being surprised when our rugby players straight up die on the field.

(distance traveled since I last updated: 121.3 km)


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