A smiling Dr Alex Channon in the gym

Podcast: Catching up with Dr Alex Channon

In the latest podcast, we speak to School of Sport and Service Management Senior Lecturer Dr Alex Channon about his research into medical work in combat sports.

Alex also talks about how combat sports are regulated and the difference between fighting and violence. There’s also a conversation about concussion – a topic which regularly comes up in so many sports.

Alex is course leader of our Sport Studies and Sport Management undergraduate courses.

Find out more about Alex’s research and the Love Fighting, Hate Violence campaign.​

You can listen to the podcast by clicking the ‘play’ button below, or via most podcast apps – just search University of Brighton. We are on Spotify and iTunes, and many more platforms.

Alternatively, most of the podcast is transcribed below.
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I studied sport and exercise science as an undergraduate, and then from there I developed an interest in sociology and the social aspects of sport and physical activity. So I went on and did a Masters and a PHD in the Sociology of Sport. From there I got my first lecturing post at the University of Greenwich and then after being there for four years I joined the University Brighton in 2015.

We’re going to talk in detail about your research relating to combat sports mainly, shortly. Let’s talk about your teaching work here first though. So can you tell us more about what you specialise in, what you teach?

Yeah. So I teach broadly the social aspects of sport, physical activity, physical education, fitness and so on. Sometimes that involves very theory driven sociology modules where students who come to university thinking they’re going to be studying P.E. end up studying Marx, a little bit anyway. And then other times it’s a lot more real world issues driven. So we’ll be looking at things that have recently happened, for instance in certain controversies in sport, and try to understand what brought them about and how the media respond to them, how people react to them and what sort of implications they might have for our students when they go out into the world of work. You know, what kind of key problems will they be dealing with if they’re going to go and work for a sport governing body or for developing community sport and so on. So those are the kind of things that I deal with and I teach them across a range of programs here at the university. So sometimes I’m teaching them to use social issues for physical education students. Mostly, though, they’re interested in things like equity and inclusion and things of that nature or education policy. And then I’m teaching sport business and I’m also teaching the sports studies students who are more interested in the wider adult world of sport, if you like. So a range of things within the social science framework.

When you say about some of the controversies, what sort of things have you been focusing on in recent times?

So there’s some that never go away, things like doping, you know, why do athletes dope? Why do we think it’s a bad thing? How should we best control it, if at all those kind of questions? And then there is the more sort of pertinent contemporary things like athletes with hyperandrogegism; so the Caster Semenya ruling has been a big topic for conversation over the last couple of years. Things that sort of ebb and flow, so women’s football. You know, this year obviously the World Cup, huge, huge impact on the media in this country, big talking point. Yeah, things that sort of come around in the news cycle that never really go away and then those things that come into the fore in quite profound ways. So, yeah, the world of sport gives us plenty of material to get our teeth into. I think it’s a really great way to take 18-year-olds, you know – young adults – who wouldn’t really spend a lot of time thinking about things like, ‘what is gender?’ I’m picking that in much detail or thinking about how does power work in society? You know, and you get these kinds of examples, corruption in FIFA, the inclusion of transgender people in sport, you know, it gives them a chance to then take something that they’re really interested in, which is sport, and use that as a hook to get them to learn about things that are relevant in more walks of life. And then you’re helping them to become future graduates in a range of different professions.

You’ve been a lecturer for a while now. How did you get into teaching and how would you describe your approach to it?

So, yeah, most people who come through the system in the way that I did, so doing a PHD and then going onto academia, you kind of see yourself as a researcher first and foremost. That’s what you’re encouraged to do. You get trained to be a researcher and you get judged on how good you are at researching for you to get your PHD. You don’t really get a lot of preparation. Yeah, it was a bit of a shock the first year or so. You know, you go from being a full-time researcher to being a full-time educator, but I really enjoy it. You know, it’s very rewarding and spending pretty much all of my working life talking to young people who are enthusiastic about the same things as I am is great. You know, so it’s yes, it was wonderful really. How I got into it? Yeah. I wanted to continue studying to take my education as far as I could. And once you get to that doctoral level, it sort of becomes the natural next step. If you want to stay in academia, that’s where you go. And I think I’ve really enjoyed that transition. You know, at first it was a little bit confusing to shift gears quite dramatically. But yeah, I really enjoy it. And yeah, it’s a great, great, great, great job.

Before we go into your research, which mainly focuses on combat sports, where does that interest come from?

I started training in kickboxing when I first went to university. So in 2004, before that I’d done a little bit, you know, here and there, a few classes in boxing gyms. Of course, every young boy to some extent thinks they’re gonna be a professional wrestler or something, if they’re not going to be a footballer. So having been scrappy with my mates all my life I found it really, as a sport to do at university, fantastic. It wasn’t a team, so you didn’t need to worry about making the team. There wasn’t that kind of competition against your own teammates to do well, which there was in a lot of other sports that I was interested in. So I really took to it. That sort of social inclusion, actually, I found really, really great as well as the general interest in martial arts, great for fitness and all the rest of it.

So it became a, I don’t like to use the word passion as I think it’s a bit of a cliché, but it was something that I did a lot of and cared a lot about. So I started training in kickboxing and I had changed to do kung-fu. I did that for about five years when I was studying. And since then, just a little bit on and off and back on. At the moment I’m training in Brazilian jujitsu. But yeah, I’ve been training for a long time and I just really enjoy being part of that world.

I think one of the things that made it interesting as a research topic was there’s not a huge amount of research on martial arts. There’s a growing body of research now over the last 10 years or so. At the time when I first started doing this stuff, it wasn’t as well understood in the sociology of sport as football was, for instance. So there there’s a gap there to do research on. But also, I think as a lot of misunderstanding about combat sports, particularly the competitive full contact fighting, a lot people have a lot of stereotypes, a lot of misconceptions. Sometimes they’re justified. But most of the time, I think people are very, very far off the mark with the way they dismiss and stigmatise these sports. So there’s plenty of chances there to talk about that and offer some insight that surprises people a lot of time.

Yeah, when you’re really talking about stereotypes, I guess one of the main ones might come from one of the campaigns that you’ve basically been behind, which is the Love Fighting, Hate Violence campaign. That fighting isn’t really about violence?

Yeah, that’s partly it. This project – Love Fighting, Hate Violence – I started it with my colleague Christopher Matthews, who used to work at this university but is at Nottingham Trent now. We developed this really out of our different research projects on it; he used to be a boxer and he studied boxing for quite a while and I studied various different martial arts. And yeah, certainly in my work I would always ask, particularly men, about their understanding of masculinity in martial arts; it was something that I was interested in.

One of the questions I would always ask is, what do you make of this idea of martial arts being violent? And always the response would begin with something like, “I’m not a violent person” or, you know, “I can see why people might think that, but I don’t think it’s violent.” So it’s an intriguing proposition. You know, you spend three or four times a week, couple of hours each time, you know, maybe more punching people in the face and being punched and throwing people on the ground and choking them and so on, and you don’t think it’s violent? You know, that’s that’s really interesting. It’s a paradox. So you have to kind of unpick that.

From a research point of view it was interesting, but also from a practitioner point of view, feeling what it’s like to be punched and kicked by someone who you’re training with compared to those very few times in my life where I’ve been involved in actual altercations, where the physical impact of those fights, the violent fights has been relatively minor.

Most people when they fight, they’re not very good at it. And they don’t hit very hard or it’s scrappy and messy. But the way that feels to be involved in that situation is completely different and much, much worse, more unsettling, more frightening and it leaves a bit of a psychological mark and so on, much worse than the kind of thing that goes on in the training hall where you can be beaten very hard. You know, you can be injured, you can be out, you might even go to hospital but the feeling of that is just completely different from sort of a personal, sort of phenomenological point of view.

So trying to understand what it is that makes martial arts activities so different to effectively the exact same action outside of that context is what started us with this Love Fighting, Hate Violence project.

What we wanted to do was really take that awareness that martial artists have that this isn’t violence, they know what violence is, you know, in a way that a lot of people don’t or at least know what violence isn’t, and that gives us a chance to sort of make that a foundation for dialogue about recognising violence and hopefully preventing it. So one of the things that we’ve we’ve consistently said is that nonviolence and violence is sort of separated by one of the boundaries of consent. In a boxing match, you touch your gloves and it’s a signal of consent. In a martial arts gym, you bow when you enter the mat so it’s a signal that you’ve crossed a threshold. You’ve indicated to somebody else that, ‘OK, I’m willing to hit you and I’m willing for you to hit me.’ So if we think about consent as a really important philosophical underpinning of what makes this ethically okay, then we can recognise consent in these environments.

Maybe we can start thinking about how we recognise consent in other environments where perhaps we might assume that people are okay with us treating them one way or another, but maybe they aren’t, and maybe we need to be more reflective about that so what we try to ultimately do, long winded response to your question, is use martial arts as a sort of a site for teaching young people about consent.

Great. Let’s talk about some of the research that you’re focusing on at the moment. A lot of it focuses on medical care and how well athletes are looked after in combat sports. So when we’re talking about one of the areas that you’re looking at – about unlicensed area first – what are we talking about here?

So combat sports are a funny thing in the UK. They’re legal by virtue of the fact they’re not explicitly illegal. And I think actually it is that legal principle of consent on which a lot of contact sports, not just fighting sports, but contact sports in general. If you get a heavy tackle in rugby the person who tackled you is not going to be prosecuted the way they would if they just dived at you on the street, because it’s implicit that you’ve consented to that, by being in that environment. So, yeah, you’ve got combat sports legality there, like an unwritten rule in a sense. It’s not formally governed. So boxing has a couple of governing bodies in this country.

The British Boxing Board of Control and the England Boxing, which do professional and amateur fights respectively so they technically control those sports and they govern them in those areas. But it’s entirely possible and legal for you and I, if we raise a little bit of money next weekend, we could stage a boxing match and we wouldn’t have to have the BBBC or England Boxing or anybody else looking over our shoulders to make sure we’re doing the right thing. We could do that, it would be legal, and that does happen quite often.

The white collar boxing phenomenon is something which a lot of people have heard of now. It’s where you do an eight-week training program to raise money for charity and so on. White collar boxing is not regulated by either of those governing bodies. It does have a certain sense of structure to it. There are companies that run these things and they have a public image to uphold so there is that, at least. But then there are boxing matches that take place on a kick-boxing event, for instance. So you’ll have a kick-boxing show and you’ll feature two or three boxing matches on there. They’re not white collar. It’s not affiliated to any of the sort of recognisable white collar companies, it’s not governed by England Boxing and it’s not governed by the BBBC.

So you’ve got effectively underground boxing. You know, it’s not the most accurate term, but you’ve got unlicensed boxing taking place, quite often, all around the UK. Despite the existence of these two governing bodies, which are fairly powerful and fairly well funded. Then outside of boxing, you’ve got various different types of kick-boxing and of course, you got mixed martial arts, which is the sort that you referred to, It’s where I’ve gathered most of the data for, in mixed martial arts. There are not any formal governing bodies within the structures of UK sport for those sports. So you do have governing bodies, but they don’t really govern, right?

So then we’ve got a situation here where there are athletes who are not quite good enough to make the grades to jump to an elite sport, but they have some sort of talent and they’re going into an area where they can earn some sorts of prize money. It might not be much, but it might be most of their earnings. So they’re throwing themselves into a potentially dangerous situation, which isn’t particularly regulated and maybe without the proper medical care, if they were to get seriously hurt?

Even at the highest levels in mixed martial arts in this country, the highest level, so UFC ballot or and you know, these very, very large international promotions, they’re not answerable to a governing body.

Not like football, you’ve got FIFA and you’ve got the FA in this country and so on. In various other sports you have various different layers of infrastructure, very different layers of governance. You don’t have that in mixed martial arts. You do have people who are working hard. You know, and I should mention that there was a recently formed English mixed martial arts association trying to set itself up as a governing body for MMA in England, but they don’t actually have power to govern.

So, you know, again, if we had some money and we had a few friends, we could put on an MMA show next weekend as long as we managed to get insurance. You know, it’s up to the insurer to set conditions for us. We could do it and there’ll be nobody looking over our shoulder to monitor how we’ve run it. So there are people who are trying to govern these things and they are, from what I’ve seen, they’re well intentioned and they do want to protect and promote fighter safety and, you know, develop the sport at the same time. But they don’t have the power to actually do that. And at the end of the day if it’s going to cost us, in our hypothetical event, if it’s going to cost us an extra four or five grand to tick all the boxes that they want ticked we’re not going to do it, you know, because we can make more money by not. Or it might not be a matter of us making money, it might be the feasibility of it. We might not be able to afford to put it on at all, if we followed all of the regulations that the powers that be are trying to put in place.

So, yes, there are athletes who are up and down the country competing on shows very regularly, very limited record keeping, tracking of their injuries. In some cases the medical care is excellent. In other cases, the medical care is non-existent. I’ve seen and heard of quite a few shows where the medical staff who’ve been booked are not qualified at all. They just wear a nice bottle-green jumpsuit with medic on the back, but they don’t have any qualifications. So yeah, it’s a bit of a messy situation right now and the unlicensed fight scene in kickboxing and MMA is the fight scene in this country.

Yes, so the loaded question is what needs to happen now? How can an unregulated sport without a governing body regulate itself? Does there need to be more input in this country, at least from UK Sport, to make it compulsory? Is that a government policy thing? How high up does it need to go?

I think recognition from UK Sport and Sport England, especially when Sport England controls funding channels, and then they can set rules that people have to follow if they were going to receive government money. I think that’s absolutely the way to go. The difficulty is this is quite political.

I mentioned there are two different governing bodies for boxing historically and, based on the interviews I have conducted with some folks who have been attached to them at different points, they don’t get on that well with each other. They don’t often talk to each other very much.

Likewise, within various different martial arts, there are lots of schisms and splits between the various kickboxing bodies and so on, also between martial arts, and this is a bit of an issue given the Olympic status of judo and to some extent boxing, taekwondo and wrestling. Mixed martial arts wants to be an Olympic sport. The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation have been campaigning for that. They’ve recently had their application to join the GSAIF denied. I don’t know if they were given a specific reason, but I think everybody is sort of saying, “well, it’s probably because wrestling won’t let them” or “judo won’t have resisted it because it’s territory,” right? It’s taking up territory. So I think there’s some political things.

I should add as a caveat, this isn’t something I’ve actively researched, so I might be off the mark on these things, but this is the impression I get that it’s a little bit political. So for that kind of recognition that comes through being an Olympic sport, which then filters down, if it’s in the Olympics, it will be team G.B. and it will have to be then organised more effectively through that the infrastructure that exists. If that were to happen I think you would see the opportunity, at least, for better regulation to come into play.

But as I mentioned at the start, we’ve got two boxing governing bodies that have been out for a long time that have, you know, a lot of history in there, they control the sport to some extent in this country, but you still get boxing happening outside of their remit.

So I don’t think it’s a simple solution of, yes, let’s get a governing body that’s regulated by and affiliated with UK Sport and Sport England and that’ll take care of all the problems. I think there needs to be changes to the legal status of these sports that will filter down and really protect people from the worst cases of practice that we’ve seen.

We’ll come back to some of the sort of medical issues and dangers in just a moment. Going back to the Love Fighting, Hate Violence project, is the the public and media perception of combat sports, I mean that from outside the combat sport community, whether they might be journalists or people that are fans or participants, is that a perception that you get to change if there’s more coverage around what’s being done positively in terms of athlete welfare? I mean, do the fighters do themselves any favours when they participate in the usual trash talk that we see, to basically sell shows, whether that be for tickets or pay per view? Is that what puts people off the neutrals? Puts people off and maybe gives them that kind of view of the sport?

That’s a really good question and it’s a bit of a paradox. And I love teaching with this, you know, for a nice little example, because you ask who’s heard of the UFC and, you know, half the class, 90% in the class, will put their hands up. And then you ask who’s heard of Daniel Cormier and most of the hands go down. OK. Who’s heard of Conor McGregor and all of the hands go up even if they’re not heard of the UFC. So fighters like McGregor; he’s a polarising figure within the sport. He is a fantastic fighter, there’s no doubt about that. And he has certainly improved the recognition, the brand recognition of the MMA of the UFC and his own personal brand, obviously. But then a couple of weeks ago, he was in the news for punching an old man in a bar for refusing to drink his whisky and various altercations with members of the public. Where he is a bully. You know, he’s come across very badly in that. I don’t think that does any favours for the image of the sport. But at same time it is exposure, isn’t it? And I think people who are going to watch fighting sports, they are attracted by this, by this sort of bad boy, this sort of bad attitude, this kind of kind of pro-wrestling style hype that gets put into these shows.

It draws an audience in and I think there’s probably a line at which once that line gets crossed, people start to get repelled and I think Conor McGregor has crossed that line a couple of times. The big fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov’s entourage in October last year. So that was that was pretty appalling and I think people were shaking their heads.

The history of the UFC in particular, obviously MMA is not just the UFC, but the UFC is a very important case study. They’ve always been walking this line between violent enough to draw people in and to be sort of sexy and dangerous and different to do boxing and other sports, but not too violent that people are losing teeth and there’s blood all over the place and it’s grim and people end up getting turned off from it.

A colleague of mine from from Canada wrote a fantastic paper on the the aesthetic framing of mixed martial arts by mixed martial arts commentators, Gordon Brett if anyone wants to look him up, about how the aficionados in MMA may make these judgments. You know what’s too violent and what’s acceptable?

So, yeah, I think the people who promote the sport, they walk a fine line. Groups like the IMMAF, the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation, they’re pushing quite hard to present this as sport, as athletics. They’re working very hard with junior and cadet level. It’s a sport for children and so on. So to present that as a sport where, you know, you’ve got all this sort of violent trash talking and this meanness and bullying, that to them is anathema to what they’re trying to do, the image they’re trying to put of the sport. Ultimately, they’re trying to get into the Olympics. So, of course, you can’t have trash talk at the Olympics.

And also, it completely doesn’t fit with the Olympics code.

Completely doesn’t fit. Yeah. So you’ve got these tensions all over the place. I think people enjoy people enjoy fighting sports. Even if it’s just a very implicit level, they recognise that it isn’t really violent. They know that this is acceptable. However, which way they conceptualise that they don’t get disgusted by it as they do by, as I mentioned before, much lower levels of sort of physical damage being done in a street situation.

So there is this acceptance that this is legitimate among people who are keen on it. And I think it’s a question of how far the bodies that have a vested interest in promoting the sport want to walk that line, one way or the other, and puff the showmanship in a spectacular sort of drama of it to draw in new viewers or to represent this family-friendly, genuine, athletic contest image to to win over the Olympics and so on. So, yeah, it’s an interesting time to watch this unfold. It’s something that gives us plenty to talk about in class, for sure.

We’ve seen some quite high profile incidents in boxing fairly recently with people that have lost their lives from injuries sustained during a fight. The Russian boxer Maxim Dadashev passed away in July, bleeding on the brain from a blow he took during a fight. This is when it comes back to a similar question of what we were talking about just now, about perceptions of combat sports, doesn’t it? Because this is when we can see incidents like this are fighters that people wouldn’t have heard of and they’re at lower level events. But this is when the media really runs with it, don’t they? And this is when people who may still sit on the fence about whether combat sports is a safe thing to do or not get thrust back in and more people might be turned from the sport. What are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, I agree with you. I think that is the case. It’s tragic and it’s it’s very sad. It happens again and again. It’s no longer a tragedy. You know, it’s a travesty. And there should be something that we can do about these things. There’s growing recognition, I think, of the health, health, damaging consequences of participating in all sports, not just in combat sports. People die running marathons. You know, people die running half marathons. It’s not to trivialise it, of course, but it’s to just put it into context.

I think when we see somebody die in a boxing match, we probably respond to that more strongly than when we respond to somebody dying in another sport, which isn’t, you know, walking that line between violence and nonviolence because of the connotations. This person was killed in a boxing match versus this person sadly died running a marathon. So, you know, it’s important that we contextualise like this. The deaths in combat sports are not unique to combat sports.

At the same time, you know, we’ve got to think about how the provision of medical care is a hugely important thing to get right for the athletes sake. But also, if we’re thinking a little bit more sort of in terms of the sport development implications for this and the reputation of these sports, because those tragic injuries, deaths and so on are going to be seen perhaps more negatively when they happen in combat sports and happen in other sports, that should be an incentive to the powers that be within these sports to double down and work even harder to protect the athlete’s health, because ultimately they’re also protecting their own interests by doing that. That’s the kind of argument that has come up a couple of times in the study that I’ve done recently, particularly from those medical staff who work at the higher end shows. Yes, there’s no governing body here, there’s no rules that they have to follow. But the line usually goes because the TV cameras are here, the organisers want to make sure that we’ve ticked every box that we’re a hundred percent safe. That’s why they’ve brought my team in, you know, I bring multiple doctors and ambulances and so on.

When the TV cameras aren’t there perhaps you’ve not got quite such a keen awareness of the fact that something terrible happening here is going to reflect very, very badly on you and your sport more widely. So, yes, you know, we do see quite firm reactions to these things when they happen. I think that should, if promoters and organisers of these sports have really thought this through, that should be an extra incentive, if any was needed, to take medical care seriously and to really put that in place. It seemed a little bit mercenary to talk about in those terms, but that’s the language that people who run these sports would most like to understand. You know, it’s about their future livelihoods in this industry.

Talking about head injuries, in general. This is a huge talking point in combat sports. Obviously, We’ve seen it in the Ashes this summer with Steve Smith and the dangers of fast bowling. We will see it in the Rugby World Cup coming up, no doubt, who have very strict concussion protocols. But like you said, you’ve consented to play these sports, you’ve consented basically that these dangers are there. These can’t really be eradicated. When Jofra Archer is running in and bowling at 96-miles-an hour, a bouncer from a fast-bowl is one of the greatest things to see in cricket. When you see a massive tackle come in, in rugby, it’s part of the game, as long as it’s legal. We can see the most incredible punches thrown in boxing. So is it actually about better care after? Or during the sport?

I think that’s something that can be obviously invested in and hopefully improved. Diagnosing concussions can get better; that’s very difficult to do. It’s often the reason that people people suffer quite badly if we don’t diagnose it properly and they continue playing and get hurt. I think the question of consent is is absolutely key. Now, I’ll focus on that for now, because that’s something that I’ve spent most of my time thinking about and arguing about.

As a researcher, I know very well that consent means nothing unless it’s informed consent. You don’t know what you’re consenting to. You can’t really consent. And it’s not really the moral sort of trump card that people think it is. So that has quite profound implications for particularly young people in sports. So at what age do we think that young people are able to properly consent to potentially receiving brain damage? A big debate right now among a lot of coaches that I know in kickboxing, mixed martial arts and so on around had contact for younger athletes. Should you be training head contact? Should you be training 14 or 15-year-olds, how to withstand being punched repeatedly in the head? If you want to develop your chin, as they say, you need to take those shots, you need to know how to slip punches and you need to know what it feels like to be hit.

Every single time you get hit in the head, you suffer a tiny amount of brain damage. If you get knocked out, this is lasting damage that you are doing to yourself. Is it right and fair to be doing that to kids who don’t really know the consequences? We would say, don’t we, that kids think they’re invincible, you know? Absolutely so. In a combat sport, you’re taught to believe you’re invincible. You know, it’s the way you prepare for competitions. So I think there’s some really, really troubling questions to be asked about that. A friend of mine who who used to box at a very high level. She told me that one of the drills her coach would do with her, back in the day, a couple of decades ago, would be this game where you have a stick and you sort of put a stick on the ground. You put your head on the stick and run around to make yourself dizzy. You know, the party game. Right. Well, she would do this. And this was a national level coach who was coaching people who were going to go to the Olympics by doing dizzy drills.

So you would do the dizzy thing, so you are dizzy, and then you have to spar and then you’d have to go a certain number of rounds so that you learn how to hide the symptoms of concussion, of being on unsteady on your feet so the referee won’t stop a fight in that coach’s view prematurely for a simple little thing like a concussion. So you’ve got a culture in sports where not only are we perhaps not really taking this this question of informed consent quite seriously as we as we should be. We’ve also got the normalisation of concussion and this sort of treating it as an obstacle to be overcome. Now, I can’t say how far that’s embedded in sports like cricket, rugby and so on. But there’s certainly a good number of folks who would possibly describe themselves being a little bit old school who would still see these practices as legitimate. And I think until we can dislodge that kind of culture which is happening, you know, people are talking about this, it’s being put on the agenda, it’s being dealt with. But until that’s probably done away with, I think we’re going to continue to see quite dangerous concussion practices and people getting badly, badly hurt from it.

Yeah, there have been a few calls after the Steve Smith incident from welfare experts from across different sports who have been calling for regulation of concussion protocol to apply the same protocol across all sports. Something very, very strict. So there have been, in the past few years, tests where an athlete could actually just learn and recite orders of things, because even when they’re concussed they might be able to still sing a song so they could basically recite a concussion test. Now, the new techniques seem to be about concussion testing them when they’re completely fit and fine, then going back to the same tests when they might be concussed and then trying to confuse them a bit by mixing up the questions. Do you agree with this idea to come up with something really very strict and it applies across all sports?

I think you would get quite a lot of resistance from any attempt to do a one-size-fits-all job. And that itself becomes sort of a cliche that people who don’t really want to do this can hold up. Oh, yeah, but this is a cricket thing, this isn’t going to work in rugby or this is a football thing, it doesn’t apply to boxing. I think there is a growing recognition of the need to do something and a strict protocol is something that governing bodies particularly can hold up and go – look, we follow this gold standard protocol, we’ve ticked all the boxes. And that, to some extent, serves as a kind of defence against charges of ‘you’re not doing enough to protect your athletes.’ So I think in that sense, you know, a formal recognised protocol is a good thing, which will probably get by and provided that it’s effective and it actually does help people. Recently, the Association of Ringside Physicians published a paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine where they are outlining a protocol for the treatment of concussion in boxing or combat sports more broadly but it’s mostly, I think, from context, it’s mostly to do with boxing. And I think there’s promise in that, that this kind of recognised procedure that you can look at and say, well, at least we’ve got this. This is better than having nothing. Just to go back to my research, which is one of the safer talking points I actually researched,

I saw a range of different protocols, if you can even call them protocols being used by people who are in various different grades of medical staff. Some are doctors, some are paramedics, some are emergency medical technicians or ambulance techs. They’re not lower than a paramedic in the terms of the hierarchy, you know, in a sense, some are just first aiders They don’t know what concussion looks like. You know, they know what it is, but they don’t really know how to diagnose, let alone what they should be doing about it. And I’ve seen people run through little checks, follow my finger and tell me your name and what’s your postcode, that sort of stuff. But it’s all very loose and it’s all very much, you know, does this person think about it enough to implement this in a sport situation? If we had something that was standard that you could hold up and say, this is what you should all be doing, I think that would at least set a baseline for practice, which is not gonna solve all the problems but it’s better than nothing, I think. So, Yeah, I’m pleased to see moves in that direction. But as I said at the start, you know, whether this will be widely taken up and what kind of pushback there’ll be against it from folks who are not entirely convinced by it remains to be seen.

Yes. Ultimately, it will come down to those medical professionals. An athlete who may be concussed would always want to come back on. And if they can’t go by what the athlete is saying because they haven’t been appropriately tested. And then like you say, if it’s a big high profile event with lots of cameras there, the coach would probably want them back on as well. So it’s so important to have those medics properly trained and know what they’re doing and make the call and to be, that’s it, that’s my decision, no questions asked…

If it were that simple, it could be wonderful. Yes, if it was, this is my decision, and that’s the end of it. As long as everybody else in that field accepted that that’s the end of it. I think that would be good. From what I’ve seen from plenty of other studies as well as other sports contacts, whether we’ve looked at medical practitioners, they don’t tend to have that much power. In some contexts, you know, you’ve got fantastic people who are running sports, referees, coaches, you know, promoters and organisers and, you know, officials and so on who take the word of the medic as gospel. And that’s it. It’s game over. They say stop, we stop. But then you’ve got plenty of other contexts where that’s not the case. “Well, if the athlete is okay to carry on, you know, it’s his decision.” You know, of course he’s going to carry on. Like you said, he’s been concussed and has diminished capacity, possibly, or even if he hasn’t he still desperately wants to compete, that’s what athletes do. You’ve got people in the crowd who are cheering, you know, “let him fight.” You know, I actually saw this. I saw somebody, it wasn’t a concussion, it was a horrific bleed. It was disgusting amount of blood pouring out this guy’s head, it was like a comedy horror show. You know, it’s spurting out this guy’s head but because the blood wasn’t going directly into his eye. The referee and everybody else was, “He’s fine. You can see, he’s fine.” The medics there wanted to stop the fight because of the hygiene implications. This guy’s not being blood tested and now his blood is all over ringside. I had it on myself. I was sitting ringside. I had it on my hands, I had it on my glasses. His opponent was wearing a mask. They wanted to stop the fight so they could try to staunch the bleed but the promoter of the event didn’t let them. In the middle of the ring, you’ve got the referee, you’ve got the promoter, you’ve got the whole crowd pouring all around. “Let them fight, let them fight.” So the medic tried to make a decision there. Overruled, immediately.

Now, I think this is the kind of situation where if you’ve got this formal external protocol that everybody says: yes, we agree with this, we sign up to it, this is what we’re going to do. You’ve at least got that the medics can hold up and say, yes, but this is the thing that you said you’d do. Right. This is our role within that policy. Our role within that procedure is to stop this match, this fight, whatever, when we see a problem and that’s our purview, that’s your prerogative, and you’ve accepted that beforehand. Whereas in this situation, without that kind of external policy, it’s kind of like well we’ll just make it up as we go along. You know, another example in point, would be a few years ago, the Eva Carneiro at Chelsea with Jose Mourinho yelling at them for getting on the pitch and treating a player. Medical care seen as interfering with sport. Never mind what the doctor has seen as something that needs to be done as a medical professional. The football manager knows best. Shouts them down, get on with it. And that goes on a lot. Sports medical practitioners do not have a lot of power in most contexts. So I think, if anything, these kind of external protocols, whatever they focus on, one of the things that would be for me an absolutely priority would be ensuring that the people who are there on the ground to make those decisions have the power to actually action them when they make them.

We end every podcast with some questions away from work. Here’s five sort of quickfire talking points and questions to start with. So first one would be what advice would you give to your younger self?

Probably train more, play less computer games.

Could you pick a favourite place in Sussex?

Yeah, I actually used to come to Eastbourne as a kid on holidays. My nan and grandad used to bring us down here and we used to go up to Beachy Head. Being back here after quite a few years of being in other parts of the country. Yeah, really love it out there. It’s lovely, gorgeous countryside.

What are you currently reading, watching and or listening to?

Reading… I’ve just managed to get my hands on the complete Conan the Barbarian Chronicles. So yeah, some light holiday reading that I’m working my way through. Aside from all the academic stuff which is what we’ve already talked about.

Describe your perfect weekend?

Wake up relatively early, walk the dog, bit of training, barbecue in the afternoon.

If you can invite three people to dinner, past or present, who would they be and why?

Now, I know you’re supposed to say something quite interesting here to come across as all cultured and everything. I did think about this one and honestly, it would be my old university friends. We see each other a few times a year and those are the best days. So yeah, it’ll be a select group. Only three. Some of my old friends​.