Last week’s column ended with a lament over the fact that sumo continues “to chew up and spit out young kids without consequence.”
It took less than six days for further evidence of the sport’s callousness toward its participants to be splashed across TV screens nationwide.
On Day 10 of the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament, third-tier wrestler Shonannoumi clashed heads with his opponent during a false start and immediately crumpled to the clay. Clearly concussed, the 22-year-old made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get back on his feet for the restart before collapsing once again.
As the Takadagawa stable youngster struggled to get upright, the referee and ringside judges were all looking at each other, clearly unsure of what to do before eventually calling for a mid-ring conference. As they talked things over, Shonannoumi regained enough control to indicate he was able to continue and the fight went ahead.
The bout being allowed to proceed while Shonannoumi was obviously in a concussed state immediately prompted a strong backlash online, and even some normally reticent and reserved journalists described the situation as “dangerous.”
Before the evening was out, it was being reported that the Japan Sumo Association, realizing the seriousness of the matter, would discuss rule changes after the conclusion of the ongoing meet with the aim of preventing a recurrence.
Day10 Unvelievable! Makushita. When Shonannoumi (R) butts heads and collapsed gyoji calls matta but the guy is OUT OF IT, can’t even stand! They have an abrupt mono’ii to decide what to do. Shonan says he’s okay and the do bout ANYWAY. Unthinkable in other sports. pic.twitter.com/uygQbZjg4x
— SumoSoul 相撲魂 (@TheSumoSoul) January 19, 2021
While change is welcome, the fear is that any guidelines put in place will be situation-specific and aimed only at ensuring those exact circumstances don’t reoccur, rather than dealing with the concussion issue itself.
The fact that Tuesday’s incident is far from the first time that a rikishi has suffered an obvious brain injury — yet was allowed to continue fighting — doesn’t inspire confidence in the JSA’s willingness or ability to deal with the matter properly.
In May 2018 an almost identical false-start knockout occurred in a top-division bout between Hokutofuji and Ryuden, with the former also allowed to fight on despite taking a blow to the head that left him dazed and unsteady.
Videos from the 2017 New Year Basho showing shocking scenes of lower-division wrestlers Tomisakae and Maeta getting knocked out but being left to flop around or lie face down and unaided for long periods of time make for stomach-churning viewing on YouTube.
On a personal level I’ve seen numerous rikishi sustain concussive blows in training and receive no more assistance than a few minutes to shake it off. In 2006 I witnessed a wrestler get knocked out cold, only to be dragged unconscious from the ring by his heels and left to come to by himself at the side of the practice area. All he got after doing so was mockery from his stablemates for being KO’d by someone below his rank.
Sumo isn’t alone in having to deal with the specter of brain injury. American football and rugby have both been rocked by concussion scandals and lawsuits in recent times, but in those sports — at least in the past few years — changes to make the game safer have come thick and fast.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, arguably the NFL’s biggest star, could well miss Sunday’s AFC championship game if he fails to clear that league’s concussion protocol after taking a blow to the head in last weekend’s action. Neither Mahomes nor his team has any say in whether or not he’ll return to the field for the big showdown, as the set of standards developed by the NFL remove competitive considerations from the process and ensure that such decisions are made by independent medical experts.
Rugby may be facing a wave of head injury related lawsuits that could cause massive disruption and possibly even bankrupt some unions, but it’s clear that the game is far safer, and awareness of the dangers of blows to the head is far more prevalent, when compared to 15 or 20 years ago.
Meanwhile sumo, even at the amateur and underage level, is still very much in the “magic sponge” or “rub some dirt on it” era when it comes to dealing with injuries.
Young kids are cheered on by their parents when they go in headfirst and elicit that coconut sound on impact, while new wrestlers are taught to take on the large tree-like teppō pole found in every training arena using a triangle attack with the head and hands hitting the solid wood simultaneously.
Rugby and football have introduced rule changes and modified equipment in an effort to improve, and those games continue to become safer. Even so a wider awareness of the toll they take on the body and mind has hit playing numbers, especially on the gridiron.
American football has seen an almost 38% drop in participation in the contact version of the sport over the past 15 years. The change is especially acute at youth level where concerned parents are refusing to allow their children to play the sport in increasing numbers.
It’s inevitable that awareness of the danger of concussion and head impacts will eventually spread to the parents of kids doing sumo and when it does, without equipment to modify or tackle rules to change, Japan’s national sport could be in for a reckoning.
To prevent a similar drop in participation numbers, which would particularly decimate the sport at the amateur level, sumo needs to act now.
Removal of the rule requiring both hands to be down, and a move towards the almost-standing starts seen in the 1970s would eliminate a lot of the head-to-head clashes similar to the one that concussed Shonannoumi.
Pulling a rikishi from a basho at the first sign of head injury is also something that has to happen immediately. It’s widely understood now that a second concussive blow shortly after a first is devastating to the brain. Sumo can’t continue to let rikishi who have suffered concussions get back in the ring on the same day or even in the same tournament.
The JSA also needs to understand that calls for change aren’t motivated by a desire to attack the sport or its governing body. They are simply concern for those doing the sport we all love.
Brain injury doesn’t just destroy the lives of the rikishi affected. Partners and children of athletes also suffer through the slow degeneration of the minds of loved ones.
Fathers in their late 40s and 50s struggling to remember the names of their kids can’t be the price rikishi pay for having provided our entertainment.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.