Concussion is irreversible brain damage: we need to have this conversation | Ian Roberts

When the test results came back I was half-expecting negative news. I’d played nearly 250 games of rugby league and been concussed over a dozen times. I wasn’t getting out without a scratch.

But “irreversible long-term brain damage”? It hit me right in the guts.

For this is what happens when you’re concussed. Your brain is damaged. It is what it is. And it’s the language we have to use when talking about concussion.

Fact: every time you’re concussed your brain is damaged. And it’s irreversible. And you need to know that, to hear it. We must have this conversation.

Yes, for sure, when a doctor uses so emotive a term as brain damage – or one so medical-sterile as chronic traumatic encephalopathy – there’s a mix of shock and fear that hits you all at once. It’s almost a form of grief – for yourself.

But it’s hard to sugar-coat “irreversible scarring on the brain”. It is what it is is. And as a sport, as a country, we need to have the conversation.

I first noticed my memory playing up while living in Los Angeles. I’d spent seven years there as one of the lucky few – a working actor. And I’d never had problems with auditions – getting a page of script and getting my lines, I’d always been confident. But five or six years ago I noticed that dialogue just wasn’t going in. I was feeling uncomfortable in auditions. I wasn’t sharp, confident. I knew something was up.

Ian Roberts

Ian Roberts in action during the Test match between England and Australia in 1994. Photograph: Getty Images

Now, it’s hard to pinpoint a moment of realisation. People ask: “When do you remember forgetting stuff.” How can you answer that? I just knew I wasn’t confident in auditions. Forgetting lines was something I’d never worried about.

For a number of reasons, not just my memory, I came back to Sydney three years ago and bumped into Alan Pearce, a professor at La Trobe University and expert in the neurophysiology of sports-related concussion. He was getting a research study together and asked if I’d be one of 25 ex-league players who’d been out of the game for 15-20 years. There would also be a control group of 25 men in the same age bracket who hadn’t played contact sport.

And so we were all given a series of tests and tasks, and scanning of the brain. And in all categories of the study the ex-players fared considerably worse. There was one test where you’d take a bunch of different-coloured pegs and plug them into holes in a block of wood. Thirty seconds later you’d take the pegs out and try to plug them back into the same holes. The ex-players came out far worse than the control group.

Some of the other footballers, like myself, have a profile. But they’re not willing to go public. And I totally get that. Yet I believe this conversation needs to be had. Players, administrators, parents, kids, everyone in rugby league – in sport – needs to be informed about the long-term affects of repetitive concussion.

And we need to call it what it is: brain damage.

Yes, the term is confronting. It’s emotive. It’s what happens to people in car accidents, right? Thus it’s a word that resonates. It’s also fact. When you suffer a concussion you suffer brain damage. Calling it head trauma or a head knock, it’s like you’re cushioning the blow, so to speak. But every time you sustain a concussion it’s damage to the brain. It’s brain damage.

The National Rugby League and other sporting bodies need to move forward with strategies for prevention. The NRL is making the right noises, and taking small steps. They’re educating themselves. They’re listening to experts. They acknowledge there’s an issue. The data is in: repeated concussion causes long term brain damage.

Parents and kids need to know. The media needs to ask current players are they are aware of these things. Are today’s players enacting preventative measures? Have they read the test results of their peers in the previous generations?

What are the clubs doing? What is the Rugby League Players Association, the union, doing? Health and safety is paramount. It’s duty of care. It’s about the quality of people’s lives.

I do some work for the NRL in a theatre sports program. We go around to clubs and talk about awkward issues: misogyny, depression, suicide, drug use, social media. The league is on the front foot. It’s progressive.

And now we need to incorporate brain damage into the conversation. We have to talk about it. We can’t ignore it. And the players, like all of us, have to take responsibility for their own health.