The legal battle surrounding brain injuries in rugby players reaches a pivotal moment in court.
It has been a decade since my initial conversation with Peter Robinson regarding the passing of his son, Ben. On January 29, 2011, Ben suffered fatal brain swelling after being struck in the head twice during a school rugby match. Peter was still grieving deeply, but felt the need to share his story. It was not just about Ben and the events of that day, but also about the sport that Peter was passionate about and its failure to safeguard its players from potential brain injuries.
Peter informed me of his discussions with both administrators and politicians, recounting stories and sharing correspondence. He presented me with excerpts and printouts from medical publications and websites. He also discussed the shortcomings of education programs and medical protocols in the sport, specifically mentioning the limited five-minute concussion assessment used in professional games. He described a familiar culture where players were praised for hard hits and celebrated for continuing to play despite injuries. During that time, there was still debate over the effectiveness of scrum caps as protection and brain injuries were often referred to as “head knocks” that could be played through.
Peter was resolute in his belief that the game needed to undergo a transformation. He was not alone in this belief. Dr. Barry O’Driscoll had recently stepped down from his position on World Rugby’s medical advisory board in protest of the pitch-side concussion assessment protocol, which allowed only five minutes for medical professionals to make a diagnosis. Dr. James Robson, a veteran of six British & Irish Lions tours, also voiced his concerns. Likewise, renowned neuropathologist Dr. Willie Stewart spoke out on the matter. Meanwhile, journalist Sam Peters of the Daily Mail was researching and writing a series of articles addressing these issues. In addition, Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda, was seeking answers and raising questions about the topic in Westminster.
There were additional individuals, though their numbers were not as high as those who admitted they made a mistake, claiming it was just exaggerated fear-mongering. This included a male head coach who expressed anger, stating the group would ruin the sport, a former player who argued they were trying to make the game less rough, a doctor who declared at a medical conference that the dangers were being excessively exaggerated, and administrators who repeatedly emphasized the importance of player safety and insisted the sport was following scientific evidence.
For many years, the rules regarding concussions in rugby were based on the findings of the Concussion In Sport Group. This group would release a document every four years summarizing the most recent research on the topic. However, a new consensus was forming among players such as Robinson, Stewart, and O’Driscoll, who believed that the sport had mishandled the issue. O’Driscoll stated that they had “gotten this one very, very wrong.” Around the same time, the NFL settled a lawsuit for $765 million with 4,500 former players who claimed they had been misled about the long-term risks of head injuries. O’Driscoll was certain that rugby would face similar lawsuits.
He was correct. In December 2020, the Guardian reported that a group of ex-professional players were suing the governing bodies of the game due to being diagnosed with likely chronic traumatic encephalopathy and, in some instances, early onset dementia. The first three to speak out were former England internationals Steve Thompson and Michael Lipman, and former Wales international Alix Popham. The Guardian conducted interviews with all three and later on, with several others such as Dan Scarbrough, Paul Pook, Alex Abbey, and also Norman Hadley’s family.
The pain and suffering of others has always been a clear reality to me. While the correlation between head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been acknowledged for a long time, it remains a complex and debated topic in the scientific community. However, as I reflect on memories of conversations with individuals like Thompson who cannot recall winning the World Cup, Lipman who struggles with nocturnal bladder control, and Popham who experienced a blackout while cycling, the issue becomes more clear-cut.
There are 268 individuals participating in the event. Each one has their own unique diagnoses and symptoms, but they all have their own personal experiences to share.
On Friday, a judge will determine if the group can proceed with their legal order and, if so, which specific cases will be presented for trial. The case is currently in the pre-action phase, and there is a chance for the conflicting parties to come to an early agreement in order to avoid a trial.
However, it is believed that the defendants are currently not willing to reach a settlement. This case is distinct from the one involving NFL players, who did agree to a settlement. The accusation in that case was that the authorities intentionally deceived them, while in rugby, the allegation is that they were careless in their attempts to lessen the consequences.
The main claim is that World Rugby heavily relied on the guidance of CISG, specifically its co-chair Dr Paul McCrory. In 2022, following an inquiry by Retraction Watch and a number of articles in the Guardian, McCrory stepped down from the group due to being revealed as a repeat plagiarist. CISG remains active, but their reputation has been harmed. They no longer hold exclusive authority.
One noticeable change in the game’s culture over the past ten years, since I initially encountered Robinson, is the ongoing debate about who is correct and whether further investigation is necessary before acknowledging the connection between head injuries and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) as a widely accepted belief.
The legal matter and subsequent McCrory controversy have accelerated the discussion. This year, it was a significant accomplishment for Robinson as the UK government released new guidelines for treating concussions in grassroots sports, incorporating his ideas that he had been promoting for ten years.
It appears that the authorities are finally taking action with the necessary urgency. This does not mean that they are perfect in their approach, but they are no longer denying that there are significant issues.
The use of instrumented mouth guards is being heavily relied upon to measure the impacts on players. There are also potential advancements in pitchside diagnostic tools and treatments being explored. World Rugby aims to address both the cause and symptoms of injuries, which is promising. However, it can be difficult to balance the financial pressure to play more often with the medical need for players to have more rest.
The unavoidable truth is that rugby is a collision sport. It will be possible to do more to minimise the risk of head trauma, but not to eliminate it, especially the repeated small blows involved in rucking and tackling.
The choice to participate in the game ultimately involves considering the potential risks and benefits. The game will continue to exist despite the outcome of the legal proceedings. However, even after the proceedings are finished, players and particularly their parents will have to consider if the game is worth it. And the response to that question could have dire consequences.