Martin McKenna, Queen’s University third year law undergraduate, concludes his feature on a very real issue, common not only to rugby but all contact sports.
Rugby is learning from this systemic problem and there are Concussion Policies and Education published on the England Rugby website relating to protocols that clubs should follow, see the HEADCASE Concussion Awareness education and World Rugby’s Concussion Management advice.
This is to be commended but is this necessarily enough from the sport’s governing bodies? The England Rugby website in keeping rugby safe, states that ‘clubs should ensure that all coaches and referees are aware of the RFU’s HEADCASE concussion guidelines’. One believes the governing bodies have the authority to change the modal verb ‘should’ to ‘must’ in order to ensure those present at matches are versed in concussion protocols. In this way, when an incident occurs there should be no opportunity for mistake in wrongly recognising signs of concussion and allowing players to carry on. This is targeted particularly at club level, considering there are medical professionals at professional and international level.
The debate of whether the sport’s governing bodies were negligent comes down to a question of if they were at fault, or perhaps it is not on the bodies and the players willingly and knowingly understood what they were doing. In support of this, the formidable former World Cup Winner Matt Dawson has publicly stated that whilst he does not remember the 2003 final and at times forgets the name of his wife, does not feel ‘let down’ by the sport even if he goes on to develop brain damage or dementia from his playing career.
Dawson goes on to say that ‘No one forced me to do this…I don’t feel the game let me down. The whole of my life is because I chose to play rugby, I’m a big boy. I made that decision’. This is incredibly interesting because the players were not forced to play rugby, what was a great passion, hobby and opportunity for leisure became their profession. With any profession, an employee is aware of the risks and if those risks exist, it is their own volition to take part in that.
This also makes one think more laterally in whether certain players would be more inclined to support a claim in negligence. It would make more sense for a forward, who is susceptible to take more hits, make more tackles, be part of scrums than a position such as a scrum half or fly half; roles in which talented players are more protected. The argument therefore that players knew these risks
One concludes by stating that the issue of concussion in contact sports, particularly rugby, will never go away. The way in which it can be improved is the level of education and also the emphasis placed on that this education is critical in protecting players once head injuries occur. Everybody agrees that concussions are unfortunate and players need the highest level of protection, but putting a degree of fault and who bears the responsibility may not be the way to approach this.
From a legal perspective, assessing negligence as a foresight rather than a hindsight criterion, places difficulty on the player’s claim in attributing fault. Whilst recompense works in the short term, could it be a joint effort between the sport’s governing bodies and players to target this problem as the better solution? As the case develops and as future events occur, only time will tell.
Although rugby’s official organs strike a profound word of caution over the issue of concussion, many within the sport still feel that more can be done at an official level to mitigate the likelihood of its happening. Dr. Barry O’Driscoll, formerly World Rugby medical adviser, suggested that the current protocols in rugby regarding head injuries are not effective. Dr. O’Driscoll highlighted his belief that rugby’s mandatory Head Injury Assessments possessed “no scientific standing.” In terms of recovery from head injuries he warned, “The six-day return to play came in because the game went professional and there was pressure to get a player back for the next game. It was based on nothing else. We are damaging players’ brains again and again.” Evidently there is no agreement, as yet, that everyone within rugby, and indeed in other contact sports, are on the same page as to how the prevention and recovery of head injuries can be approached. One thing is for certain, however, that a co-ordinated and single plan of action is needed whether at individual sport level or government level.