Fourteen-year-old Ben Robinson tragically lost his life due to head injuries sustained in a rugby match in Northern Ireland in January 2011.
Playing for his school’s team, Ben, from Carrickfergus in Co. Antrim, suffered a concussion during the match in which he was hit by heavy tackles on several occasions but remained on the field, despite being momentarily knocked out at the start of the second half.
Towards the end of the match, the young boy collapsed and later died in hospital from brain injuries.
The coroner ruled that the teenager died from Second Impact Syndrome, by which a further blow can cause swelling to the brain before it has fully recovered from a previous injury.
It is believed that his death was the first recorded death due to Second Impact Syndrome in Northern Ireland and possibly even in the UK.
Devastated by the untimely death of their son, Ben’s parents, Peter Robinson and Karen Walton, have spent the years since his death highlighting the dangers of concussion in rugby, a campaign that has now seen the implementation of stricter guidelines in Scotland, especially to prevent any further deaths from brain injuries sustained while participating in sports.
Robinson teamed up with Dr. Willie Stewart, the foremost scientist on the subject of concussion in sport in Britain, and together they have helped bring attention to what Walton has dubbed "rugby's dirty secret."
The tragedy of Ben’s story, a young boy losing his life while playing a sport he loved, has drawn the attention of doctors worldwide regarding the implementation of guidelines to protect all players and to educate people further on the dangers of not implementing proper rest periods if players suffer a heavy tackle or a blow.
In 2013, the Irish Rugby Football Union introduced new concussion guidelines to prevent any further fatalities.
“We’ve already had a fatality, two years ago [Ben’s death],” Dr Rod McLoughlin, IRFU head of medical services, told The 42.
“It’s an incredibly rare condition [Second Impact Syndrome] and that’s the first recorded case on the British Isles; there are less than a handful worldwide. But that is what we are trying to avoid it happening again.
“We don’t want to just avoid the catastrophic end-game, we want to prevent any other minor things that could happen. This is about managing all things that occur and, yes, I hope we never see that happen again.”
“We are educating everyone – coaches, players, officials – so they understand they should not be putting pressure, in a way that they would be suggesting that somebody stay on the pitch when they shouldn’t. It’s about changing everyone’s opinion and the culture that’s out there so we don’t have inappropriate pressure being put on people,” McLoughlin continued.
A Concussion is a Brain Injury. pic.twitter.com/PAQ3FK0h93— Ben Robinson (@peterrobinson86) December 13, 2015
New blanket guidelines in Scotland, where Ben’s father lives, will now protect all amateur athletes, although Dr. Stewart feels that there is more to be done to avoid athletes suffering from dementia and other effects caused by repeated head trauma.
Referring to Ben’s death, Stewart told The New York Times, “It took something high-profile to get people to understand, and it needed something in the media to make people aware.
“Even if it just means we’re preventing another Ben Robinson and not addressing dementia, that’s still very important. We’ve got to get things to change.”
Much of what is included in the new guidelines created by Stewart is already practiced in the US, where American football leagues have adopted protocols to detect concussions early on and remove players from the playing field, guidelines that were missing when Ben donned his school shirt in 2011.
Despite being momentarily knocked out, holding his head on occasions during the match, and teammates acknowledging that he had appeared disorientated at times during the game, even forgetting the score, Ben remained on the pitch until his collapse.
Sports in Ireland and the UK have now begun to catch up with the US and establish that concussion is not just synonymous with American football but can even occur in typically non-contact sports. Earlier this year, the United States Soccer Federation introduced a limit on youth players heading the ball so as to prevent head injuries.
Barry O’Driscoll, a former top doctor for World Rugby told the New York Times, “There has been a tendency to ignore it because it wasn’t in our backyard.”
Co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Chris Nowinski, even believes that British practices may lag as many as six years behind the US.
Ben's parents have met with sports and education ministers in Ireland and the UK in a bid to change this.
The day coaches and managers - in all sports - play no role in medical affairs cannot come soon enough.— Sam Peters (@Sam_sportsnews) December 17, 2015
“People talk about the rare case of Second-Impact Syndrome, but I suppose I think about it as, well, concussion isn’t rare,” said his father Peter.
“Put it this way, if Ben had been taken off, second-impact wouldn’t have happened.”
“If we can get the message out there to parents… the more eyes and ears around the pitch, the safer the environment for the child playing.”
“I would say there is still that old schoolboy mentality of ‘suck it up. Get on with it’. That is wrong,” Karen added.