In this special report, Motley’s Current Affairs and Sport Editor Dylan White talks to Irish broadcaster, journalist and rugby pundit George Hook about the need to educate our top athletes about brain damage and life after sport.
Many words immediately spring to mind when you think of George Hook. Ambitious, complex, controversial and even lovable can all be used to describe the failed businessman turned esteemed journalist. He clearly “couldn’t give a shit” about his public image and whether or not people agree with his opinions. “If they think they upset me on twitter by calling me ‘a fat fuck’ or ‘get off the television you know nothing’ or ‘you’re an ejet’ [then they’re wrong]”.
But there are many issues that are high on the host of Newstalk’s drivetime talk show, The Right Hook’s, agenda. University sports play a pivotal role in college life and Hook believes they are very important but claims that they are not as strong today as they were around forty years ago due to the waning influence of medics. “Medics were very much the core particularly in rugby. You had guys playing for Ireland and playing for UCC. Nowadays, the medical corps in rugby is gone because there are more women than men in medicine,” he tells Motley Magazine exclusively. Hook also says that the CAO points system doesn’t necessarily help talented sports people who are lacking intellectually. “The student population has increased but the sporting part of it has been spilt”.
According to Acquired Brain Injury Ireland approximately 13,000 lives are shattered by the trauma of an acquired head injury each year.
Former Ireland and Munster rugby coach Declan Kidney was appointed as the Director of Sport and Physical Activity at UCC at the beginning of the 2013/14 academic year, earning a reported salary of up to €100,000. “The appointment of a quality guy like Kidney is very important because it’s an indication that UCC are serious about sport. There making a commitment to sport by getting a top guy and you can’t seriously expect to get a top guy for nothing”.
However, the veteran broadcaster believes the high powered collisions sustained by young sports people may do lasting damage to our top athletes. Take the iconic Brian O’Driscoll, an extraordinary physical specimen, but whose encyclopaedia of injuries can be seen as an orthopaedic surgeon’s worst nightmare. The dangers of repetitive concussions and its link to long-term brain damage have gone completely under the radar in recent times. The evidence from America is compelling and supports this fact. NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers legendary centre, Mike Webster, is a classic example of a guy who struggled to adapt to life after football. After Webster’s death (aged 50), a pathologist described Webster’s brain as one of “boxers, very old people with Alzheimer’s disease or someone who had suffered a severe head wound”. As a result, Hook says he is “totally opposed to rugby” due to its ferocious physical risk.
According to Acquired Brain Injury Ireland, who are currently running their Bake for Brain Injury Week (10th-16th March), approximately 13,000 lives are shattered by the trauma of an acquired head injury each year. Hook notes: “I don’t want my grandchildren to play rugby. Rugby is a very dangerous game. The governing bodies stand indicted to not caring about the health of the people who play it. They’re still farting around about concussions and tackling at head on. If anyone suggests that half of this Irish team hasn’t been concussed that’s nonsense. Anyone who watches television can see these guys wandering around like they don’t know what day of the week it is and it’s not just applied to rugby. We’re not talking about broken legs here. Broken legs heal but if you get brain damage you’re talking about something else entirely. In America there is terrible evidence of guys blowing their brains out, of marriage break up, of guys just being incapable of functioning”.
Hook claims that the reason for the grave lack of concern for our players on the field is because we have been professional for too short a time. “We have no body of evidence. There are no 50 year old former professional rugby players. Years ago soccer players were suffering brain damage which was glossed over from heading a football. Like in practice soccer player would head a football 40 or 50 times. That football was like concrete so you were essentially heading a rock. The only sport that has made a serious attempt with regards to brain damage is boxing where they looked at professional boxers and that’s why the amateurs wear helmets. The rest of sport is just brushing it under the carpet”.
Hook feels that players retiring from rugby have no futures, and suggests that Brian O’Driscoll should have been thinking beyond the end of the current Six Nations campaign six years. “There is no preparation [for life after rugby]. If you’re Wayne Rooney who left school at [a young age] and probably can’t spell his name, it’s ok because he’s getting [£300,000 a week] and so therefore he has money stashed. The problem with rugby players is that they probably haven’t got money stashed. I’ve seen BOD’s latest accounts. He’s got three million or something, but he’s 35 has a reasonable life expectancy of 85. That three million has to last him 50 years which it can’t. He has to get a job”.
Hooks claims that the vast bulk of rugby players are untrained for life and will struggle to get a job in modern commercial Ireland when they retire from the game. “They have never sat in an office, added up a column of figures or sold a gallon of petrol at their local station. Who is going to pay them €200,000 grand a year? The answer is nobody”.
He added: “It drives me fucking mad that nobody is talking about what faces these rugby players on retirement. Players are not thinking about it. I chaired a module at the concussion conference, and I had rugby players and Gaelic footballers on the panel that had no knowledge about concussions or a job in after life”.