The Sydney Morning Herald

By Peter Fitzsimons

March 20, 2019

So many points, so little time. But bring it in tight, St George Illawarra forward and famous English international James Graham, if you would.

James Graham must wake up to dangers of concussion following Andrew Johns' revelations.

Mate, not that you care, but I am a strong admirer. I have watched you play for years, and have often lauded the wholehearted way you throw yourself into every game no matter the score and offered deep respect in the fact you always want the ball in attack, never shirk in defence, and never give up.

The decision by the Canterbury Bulldogs to let you go 18 months ago will long stand out as one of the more absurd transfers on the books – and you can date the Bulldogs’ demise from that moment, just as the Dragons started to shape as a rough chance of a premiership from the moment you arrived.

But I’ve also publicly feared for you. Time and again, in the bad old days, before Head Injury Assessments became part of the protocol, I’d see you knocked motherless and still stay on. One time, you outright refused to leave the field, when a trainer told you the coach wanted you off, yes?

That kind of resilience and will to win is one thing. But your comments downgrading the whole importance of the concussion issue are another. Hence why I write now. Champion, you just don’t get it. Not the first clue.

And there is no better example than your comments following Andrew Johns’ revelations his doctors fear there is a link between his seizures and the concussions he suffered in his rugby league career.

That was a great interview, because it focused the rugby league mind, one more time, on the need to make the game safer.

Not that it impressed you.

“The nature of our sport,” you said, “is that head knocks are part of it. Sometimes it happens Like that’s nothing?

“A little glance, and you can’t remember the game?”

Mate, that’s SERIOUS. Talk to an expert. It is one thing to get poleaxed and not remember the game, but if we take you at your word, and you can’t remember the game after a small blow, that expert will tell you to stop playing. On that quote alone, I think your club has a duty to at least get you medically assessed before letting you play again.

 Still you are not impressed, are you.

“I do have children,” you went on to say, “and I know the importance of them having a father but I’m protecting myself as best as I can; I’m doing my research and I’m not leaving it to anybody else.”

Good for you. But can we state the bleeding obvious? This is not about you. And you may or may not be OK.

But the point is your research is not worth a cent against the research that has been done by neuroscientists around the world which demonstrates beyond all doubt that repeated concussions mean brain damage, mean serious problems later in life for most people that receive them.

For of course it is not just Andrew Johns who has had issues. If you take just the Immortals as an example, another one of them, Wally Lewis, has also had epileptic seizures – what are the chances? – while Johnny Raper is battling dementia and Graeme Langlands died from it.

I know, on the other hand, the late, great Artie Beetson played for yonks, took more conks to the head than most, and never showed the slightest sign of brain damage, and nor has Bobby Fulton. 

Good luck to them, and I suspect it really is precisely that – luck. But they are the exact equivalent of old mate down the road who smoked three packets a day for 60 years, and never got cancer. The world is full of such people, but the point is they are the exceptions to  the rule and their existence does nothing to lessen the truth that smoking causes cancer, just as nothing changes the fact that repeated concussions risk serious brain problems after the sporting career is over.

You still don’t care?

“It’s my life, I’ll do what I want to ... well, within certain realms. What’s the alternative? I kind of like what I’m doing. The consequences of that are sometimes you get hit on the head. You’ve got to go and play Oztag if you don’t fancy playing league any more.”

“Serious people are trying to make the game safer, and it needs leaders like you to support that process and not be seen to downplay it.”

Yes, it is your life. But again, it is not about you. It’s about the hundreds of thousands in this country who play contact sport and the need for all of them to realise that while no one wants to shut down football, there are protocols that need to be observed to make it safer for everyone. In recent times the NRL, particularly, has been commendably strong in making sure those rules are observed.

Comments like yours – basically, getting smashed in the head and getting on with it anyway is what goes with football – are outrageous. Serious people are trying to make the game safer, and it needs leaders like you to support that process and not be seen to downplay it. Look, did I mention this is serious?

In the same week, you were saying it is your life, you’ll do what you please, you do think of your children and their future, etc, the 49-year-old former AFL player John Barnes, who is suing his own game for its lack of care on concussion, talked about his life now: “It’s terrible.I can’t shower or bath on my own, I can’t cook, I can’t drive a car, I can’t be left alone. I have to be watched pretty much 24/7 — all the things people take for granted I just can’t do.”

James? When he was your age, he also felt bulletproof. He was wrong. We were wrong. This is serious.

And one last time for the road, if you are serious that you sometimes get a little blow and can’t remember the game, you need – urgently – to be assessed.

 © 2019 BIC

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