Rugby and Head Injuries: An Uncontrollable Problem? Issue 1

Martin McKenna, Queen’s University third year law undergraduate, discusses this live issue in sport.

Floored and Concust: George North on the ground after a major head on clash with Wasp’s player Nathan Hughes, back in 2017. Tont Marshall/Getty

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, and the Bristol Bears lead the Gallagher Premiership Rugby League, perhaps one issue is more contentious than arguably playing the closest contact sport during a pandemic: head injury claims brought by former players.

There is currently legal action being brought by former rugby union players against the rugby bodies: World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Wales Rugby Union (WRU) in an alleged lack of protection whilst they were playing to protect them from concussion.

High profile players have come out in support of this claim including Steve Thompson, the 2003 World Cup Winner who was once England’s most capped Hooker surpassed now by Dylan Hartley. Thompson has recently revealed at only forty-two is suffering from early onset dementia and cannot remember the 2003 winning tournament that took place just eighteen years ago. Rylands Law, the firm representing the claim, makes the case that the risks of head injuries, particularly concussion, were “known and foreseeable” and goes on to list twenty-four failures of these sporting bodies in failing to protect players. 

A Hard Won Game: Former England hooker, Steve Thompson, celebrating the mammoth 2003 Rugby World Cup Final triumph over Australia. He has recently admitted that, the early, onset effects of dementia haved impaired his ability to remember this day of national jubilation.

With over 80 former players voicing concern, there are eight members who are submitting this claim all of which have been diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative disease which occurs when a brain is repeatedly subject to collisions or fast movements. The effects of CTE include memory loss, depression and progressive dementia; symptoms which these former players are now experiencing. There is no doubt that these players developed CTE from their days on the rugby field; but is it really the fault of the sporting bodies in failing to protect them? In terms of preventing concussions in the sport, this is nigh on impossible. 

In a sport in which contact is inherent, the unfortunate chance of a player suffering a concussion is strikingly real. When players are subjected to heavy impact, making tackles throughout the game, it seems to prevent concussions whilst on the pitch incredibly difficult to do without radically changing the manner in which the game is played. Indeed, if the sport were to introduce helmets, it would create almost a British version of American Football, another sport in which concussions are rife.

NFL quarterback for Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes. NFL.com

In particular Patrick Mahomes, of the Kansas City Chiefs, was substituted in their playoff win against the Cleveland Browns, concussed, yet returned just a week later to play against the Buffalo Bills. This is a perfect example of assessing for a concussion right away and not makin. g the player go back onto the field, even if they are the best player in order to follow protocols and get them back for the next game.

The opportunity to prevent head injuries whilst on the pitch, is intrinsically unfeasible, and therefore this claim rightly does target protocols once head injuries have occurred or reducing the risk of them happening. Head injuries in the States have certainly garnered attention.

The NFL is currently paying out $1 billion over sixty-five years to players that were subject to head trauma in their playing days. If the Rugby claim is successful, it is unlikely to be on the same scale considering the disparities in turnovers between the two sports. Yet any victory for these rugby players, however small, would be potentially something to develop education around in holding governing bodies accountable for their actions, or lack of, that have occurred thus far.

The players are targeting to make the game safer for all, in particular to reduce the number of contact sessions during training and using a better approach to substitutes. Whilst reducing the number of contact sessions during training reduces the amount of opportunities for a concussion to occur, it does not reduce the chance of them occurring. Furthermore, if teams are trying to better themselves and prepare properly for upcoming clashes (an aptly named synonym for matches one might add) then do coaches want a restriction in how they can prepare their team? This regulation is something one believes would not go down well if teams are trying to target improvement and increase their performance on the field. However, the argument related to improving concussion substitutes is one that can always be endorsed. 

Liverpool midfielder Thiao Alcantara after a ‘clash’ with a Spurs player , during a Premier League Match. (28th January) Empire of the KOP

The current law stands that if after an incident has happened, it appears the player is concussed then they are immediately taken off the field and cannot return. However if the incident is more ambiguous, there is the opportunity for an off field Head Injury Assessment (HIA) in which a concussion substitute is made, and if the potentially concussed player is cleared by the medical professional, then they can return back to the match. One argues that football can learn from the use of concussion substitutes. This can starkly been seen from Liverpool’s recent match against Tottenham in which Thiago Alcantara was collided with causing a significant blow and cut to his head. Just a few moments later, however, he returned to the pitch sporting an easily identifiable head bandage.

Yet during his time in the changing rooms, Liverpool were down to ten men because concussion substitutes have not yet been implemented by footballing bodies. One puts forward that this needs serious addressing considering it should not be an incentive to try and get the potentially concussed player back on the pitch, because it would otherwise use up one of three important substitutes leading to a potential tactical or fitness disadvantage later in the game.

Issue 2 of Martin’s feature will be published on The Gown website, next week, starting 8th February.

Editor’s Note

Peter Donnelly, Editor

Head injuries are very much a live issue in the world of sport. It is surprising that only fleeting references are made to conditions such as concussion, which can have fatal consequences; a fact which the Robinson family are all too aware of.

February marks the tenth anniversary since the death of 14-year-old Carrickfergus schoolboy and rugby player, Ben Robinson, from concussion.

His father has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of concussion in sport, with both rugby and football authorities and Scottish Government, which took his son’s life in 2011.

Speaking to BBC Sport NI, Peter Robinson said, “Terminology is very important because concussion comes off the tongue very easily, but once you mention traumatic brain injury, it is like what I call the ‘meerkat syndrome.

People sit up and listen and think ‘right, OK’. We have come a long way, but there are still things we should and could do.

Concussion and traumatic brain injury is a public health issue, it is not just a sporting issue. It is about changing that culture where people will go ‘well, he has had a wee knock but he will be alright.”

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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