By Holt Hackney
One aspect of bull riding that makes it so fun to watch for rodeo fans is the very physical nature of the sport. For eight seconds, the rider must stay affixed to the beast as it violently attempts to throw the rider off the mount. An eye test would suggest that the risk of concussion — either the shaking of the body, and head, during the ride or being tossed to the ground with great force — is real.
This was reinforced last month when Matt O’ Flynn, 28, announced that he was retiring from bull riding after learning how repeated concussions may have led to the 2017 suicide of his good friend and fellow rider Ty Pozzobon.
“I was reading an article about Ty done one year after he passed…and I just knew at that second I had to quit,” O’Flynn told the media. “I just started to cry, and I don’t consider myself an emotional person.”
An autopsy of Pozzobon, 25, reportedly showed that Pozzobon had CTE, which was no surprise to his family, which claimed he had been suffering from concussion-related depression for a while.
O’Flynn, who claims he’s had at least 15 concussions over his career, took note. Along with fellow bull rider Lane Cork, he instituted his own return to play (RTP) protocol. “As soon as we figured out what was actually part of the reason that Ty committed suicide, we went from taking three days off after a concussion to taking over a month off every single time,” he told the media.
While O’Flynn doesn’t believe he suffers any lingering symptoms from the concussions he has suffered, he does believe he is more susceptible to them now, noting that he is experiencing them with increasing frequency. “If I hit the ground hard enough now on my butt, I’ll get knocked out,” he said.
Researchers who recently published a study (Getting Back on the Horse: Sport-Specific Return to Play in Rodeo Athletes After Concussion Injury. Journal of Athletic Training: July 2018, Vol. 53, No. 7, pp. 657-661) about the danger of concussions in the sport sounded an alarm that more should be done, especially around RTP protocols.
“Rodeo athletes represent a sport population that has received little formal guidance on the diagnosis, management, and RTP after concussion,” Alissa Wicklund, Shayla D. Foster, and Ashley A. Roy wrote in their conclusion. “A sport-specific RTP protocol sensitive to the particular culture of these athletes is an important first step in protecting the health and safety of rodeo athletes after a concussive injury.”
Rodeo Doctor Suggests Change Is Coming
Dr. Ralph Strother, head physician for the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sport Medicine Team, told the media earlier this year that his team has “followed the protocols as they relate to concussion as it’s evolved,” noting that they rely on protocols established by an international board of sports medicine experts. The protocols are re-evaluated every few years at conferences in Zurich.
“Every couple years a group of expert sports medicine physicians, several of which are Canadian, get together to review the state of understanding and the state of science as it relates to traumatic brain injury, and to develop a set of guidelines as to identification, management and return to activity,” Strother told the media. “One of the tools that has arisen from those meetings is called the SCAT — the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool, and we’re on our fifth edition of that.”
He added that “to the credit of the rodeo athlete, … they are much more willing to present themselves.”
In O’ Flynn’s case, that can even entail dramatic steps, such as retiring from the sport.