Rory Sloane and the glory of concussion

‘Always go back with the flight of the ball, and never take your eyes off it. Either you won’t get hit, or you won’t remember getting hit,’ my coach used to say with a cackle, a shining madness glimmering in his eyes.

Michael Voss once described the same no-lose situation with a similar smile. Voss was a player, like Luke Hodge, who seemed to enjoy getting hurt. Masochism in the real world is deeply concerning – on the football field, though, it is the height of inspiration, and in an odd way, exceedingly dignified.

Self-sacrifice is the greatest form of humility. Running back with the flight, as Jonathan Brown did that day against Hawthorn, and Nick Riewoldt did that day against Sydney, is the most visceral way of proving commitment to the team. A willingness to feel pain is always, for whatever the reason, the most efficient way of showing that you really, truly care.

There has never been any doubt about Rory Sloane’s willingness to feel pain. Fear of physical contact has been extricated from him, wholly and utterly. But fearlessness is something that has to be constantly proven, forever renewed. One moment of not being tough erases every tough moment before it.

What Sloane did on Saturday night was tough, admirable, reckless, horrible, dangerous, stupid, disconcerting, breathtaking, and most of all, absorbing.

As irresponsible as it might have been, Sloane almost certainly bears no responsibility for it, as Sloane wasn’t present for the event. After Sloane’s head smashed into the turf following Dean Kent’s tackle, he was out cold, and when he came to and fought off the trainers around him, he was out colder. There was nothing in his eyes as he leapt to his feet, proud and defiant, grinning as if there was nothing to fuss about, as he tried to man the mark with the ball and the play one hundred metres from where he was.

We will continue to speak about Sloane’s reaction cautiously, and at the same time, it will be one of the things that we will remember him most fondly for, a single moment that encapsulated the bold neglect for his own well-being that makes him such a special football player.

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The AFL is getting better at dealing with concussions, but a crisis looms. A Julian Edelman situation is inevitable, when a star player is knocked out in a final and then allowed back onto the field.

In a nutshell, this would be reprehensible – players need to be protected from themselves. Playing devil’s advocate, it’s also, in a way, a suppression of liberty. Edelman was knocked out in the Super Bowl, wobbled around with no idea where he was, and then came back onto the field and caught the touchdown that won the championship. Life is always bigger and more important than football, until (for some) it isn’t.

We don’t know with certainty what the consequences are from concussion aside from the fact that they are almost certainly ‘bad’. When I was knocked out playing football as an eighteen-year-old, I had a crippling migraine for three weeks and intermittently lost my peripheral vision over that time. The human body is remarkably resilient, but it is not designed to crash into other human bodies at maximum force on a weekly basis for years and years.

The more we learn about concussion, the more shocking its effects seem to be. Football, one suspects, will not be able to exist in its present form twenty years from now. At this stage, Paddy McCartin is more of a potential lawsuit than a potential AFL star.

Until we have the answers, we will remain mired in an odd purgatory that straddles hypocrisy and an eminently understandable confusion. We have to reconcile the fact that bravery is a magnificent thing in football, something that emphasises the best attributes that sport teaches – sacrifice, altruism, discipline, commitment – with the fact that when we applaud someone putting their head over the ball, we are likely applauding a reduction of their life expectancy.

What is the trade-off between present euphoria and later comfort? In a cold, rational state, would Julian Edelman accept maybe, possibly, probably having a reduced quality of life thirty years from now if it meant he was able to make a Super Bowl winning catch, the pinnacle of everything he had wanted to achieve and worked towards achieving for his entire life to that point?

Some might say otherwise, but forcing a concussed player to remain on the bench is not the same as forcing someone to wear a seatbelt. Research suggests that it is not just the big knockout blows that ruin the brain. It is the repeated minor head trauma, the endless collisions within a game, the hip and shoulders, that add up over time and destroy the body. But we don’t refuse to let a player back on the ground after they’ve racked up their fifteenth contested possession. Of course, we would never do that. That would be ridiculous.

When Sloane brazenly rose to his feet in Darwin, he brought everything to the fore, and pushed everything further into the night. Just as the commentators did, you couldn’t help but admire the audacity of his rebellion, the complete disregard for self. At the same time, you couldn’t shake the sinking, gnawing feeling that this, and so much around it, was wrong, and over time will only continue to be revealed as more and more wrong.

On to Round 18.