|A confronting story that looks at the implications of cutting-edge research relating to the prevention and management of head injuries in football players.
They've been called modern day gladiators and each year football players get bigger, faster and they hit harder. Getting hurt may be part of the game, but reporter Quentin McDermott looks at the latest research on head and brain injury. He reveals there is growing evidence that footballers young and old could be suffering long term brain damage.
It's a story that has implications for anyone who pulls on a football boot, from pros to primary schoolers. A prominent neurosurgeon tells Four Corners he is so concerned about what he's seeing that when it comes to school children there's a clear rule:
"I personally would say three significant concussions, three strikes and you're out."
Right now in the United States, researchers are doing all they can to understand what happens inside the brain when players make physical contact.
Using new imaging technology it's possible to examine not just the structure of the brain but to see how its function is changing. Some researchers now believe that a player doesn't have to sustain repeated concussions to risk permanent brain damage, but that repeated sub-concussive impact affecting the brain can be enough. The research has major implications for young players:
"We found it in a 17 year old football player, an 18 year old, we found it pretty extensive in a 21 year old, so it's helped people realise that it's not just a pro-athlete problem, that you're more vulnerable when you're young anyway and so we're clearly giving this disease to children who don't understand what they're even getting into."
So are football administrators taking the issue seriously enough? All three body contact football codes - Rugby League, Rugby Union and Australian Rules Football - say they no longer allow concussed players to finish a game, and severely penalise any player who deliberately causes a head injury. But they are also sceptical about the relevance of the US research to football as it is played here.
"I think that we need to be pretty careful how we interpret the (US research) because their game is completely different, you know? The aim of their game is to actually crash into each other with their heads you know, so potentially players are playing concussed. We don't have any such thing in our game and we take any head contact very seriously." Rugby League doctor
Researchers in Australia are lining up to do work that mirrors the investigations being done in the United States, but final agreement with the different football codes and clubs seems some way off.
Until that research is carried out, we won't know whether the repeated head injuries suffered by some footballers are damaging their health permanently. That means another generation of footballers run the risk of serious injury.