Outlet Spotlight: Get to know 'Head Noise' podcast
“I can’t be in the dark anymore, I need to know the truth, find out the damage that’s been done and what my future is going to look like.”
The Australian’s new podcast, Head Noise, hosted by retired rugby league superstar James Graham, is asking long ignored questions about risk vs reward when it comes to head injuries in professional sports. The podcast developed from an exchange James had with Jess Halloran, The Australian’s award-winning sports writer. James was on his way down to Melbourne to have his brain scanned by Dr Alan Pearce at Neuro Sports Labs when Jess called him as part of her research into an article on concussions. The pair spoke at length and their conversation ultimately evolved into the basis of the Head Noise podcast.
By the time of his retirement in 2020, James had played a combined 423 games across the Super League and NRL, along with an additional 53 caps for Great Britain and England. Many players have trouble adjusting outside of the spotlight, but it was the more than 100 concussions and over 18,000 collisions that left him with damaging mental health issues. During his career, James had been one of the most outspoken campaigners for giving the players the right to make the final call about whether they should leave the field after a collision. Yet, as he himself explains, by the autumn of 2016, he was living a double life. In private he found himself in a “strange, dark, horrible place” while publicly he doubled down on the persona of “alpha male bravado.”
In the first episode of the podcast, James discusses a collision he had with fellow great of the sport Sam Burgess, and how Burgess chose to play on for the remainder of the game with a broken cheekbone. While James goes to great lengths to express gratitude for the game that gave him everything, he brings his audience on a journey to “grasp the danger, the effects and the unintended consequences,” of this kind of high-impact sport. But to do this requires James to “go where no other footballer has gone before” by unpacking brain scans and holding conversations with concussion experts, neuropsychologists, elite athletes, and parents of the children who will be forced to increasingly engage as awareness around it increases. “This is on the mind of most people involved in sport,” says James. ”We need to highlight the potential dangers and look to provide solutions”.
James is not calling for the end of all contact sports. But he does believe that small changes can make a massive difference. “A simple and effective change would be to significantly reduce the amount of contact in training. This has been introduced by the NFL and doesn't appear to have any negative effect on the product”.
He also calls for institutional changes to the way we are approaching head injuries and collisions. The introduction of technologies to enable more rapid diagnosis will take the pressure off the athlete to make the call themselves in the heat of the moment. But technology is only one part of the issue. What also needs to change is the culture in the game itself around head injuries. “Coaches delivering messages [about the risk of head injuries] would have a far greater impact than any doctor."
Head Noise features interviews with NRL greats such as Boyd Cordner and Matty Johns describing their experiences with head injuries, as well as coveing topics such as how to safely manage children playing contact sports.
Head Noise can be found on all major podcast platforms.