I fear stories of players with dementia and brain illness will be written, rewritten and written again over time, but that very little will change and individuals will be sacrificed at the altar of commerce when it comes to the survival and longevity of professional rugby, writes Mark Keohane.
And that the player will have little legal recourse because of that word ‘choice’.
Former All Blacks prop Carl Hayman, at 41 years of age, has confirmed he has early onset of dementia and he is the latest among 150 former professional players preparing a landmark suit against World Rugby and its affiliates.
Hayman said that the 450 professional games he played took an irreversible toll on his brain, as did all the contact training sessions in the weeks leading up to those games over a career that lasted close to 20 years.
Hayman, like the other 150 players, according to reports is claiming that rugby’s governing bodies, including World Rugby, failed to protect players from the risks caused by concussions and sub-concussions. The suit will argue that World Rugby and its affiliates were armed with the knowledge and evidence to do so.
But former All Blacks team doctor John Mayhew is disputing Hayman’s assertion that the dementia is related to the concussions or in any way to the game of rugby.
Mayhew told the New Zealand Herald that more studies had to be done to determine a direct link between concussions and the risks of dementia and that the respective rugby affiliates have to invest in these studies.
But Mayhew countered Hayman’s claims in saying that there was not always a definite cause or link between concussion and dementia.
‘It is unfounded,’ said Mayew, with a statement as controversial as any made by those players affected.
England’s 2003 World Cup winning hooker Steve Thompson is at the forefront of the suit. He claims he has no recollection of the final and that little was done to educate or protect the players about concussions and the dangers that it could lead to dementia at a very young age.
Rugby is in its infancy when it comes to the legalities, compensation and charges from players relating to concussion and illness – like dementia – but studies into American Football and soccer are consistent that the evidence exists that these sports are aligned with brain damage and neuro-degenerative diseases, like dementia.
Many of the high-profile players from England’s 1966 World Cup-winning soccer squad are getting dementia and specialists and researchers are claiming it is down to the consistent heading of a soccer ball.
In American Football and rugby and rugby league, the claims are that the brain damage is because of the collisions, be it in training or in matches.
The latest data in the United States claims that former professional Gridiron players suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other memory-related conditions at rates far higher than the general population, in studies commissioned by the National Football League (NFL).
Retired players, between 30 and 49 years-old are 19 times more likely to struggle with memory problems than men who have never played the game professionally.
There is an argument that those who choose a contact sport as a profession know the risk and that if they make the choice to be professional players, there can’t be a counterclaim in a worst case scenario of brain illness.
It is an ongoing issue, with more and more players fighting the system against sporting codes who increasingly are having to concede the reality of those risks, especially with case studies of the brain becoming more advanced.
Contact sports like rugby are facing a moral dilemma.
The custodians of the sport keep on insisting that they want to make the game safer, at schools’ level and beyond, and that to protect the player’s head is the non-negotiable in the future of the game.
But for rugby to be a safe game, there can’t be collisions and for rugby to exist as a sport there will always be collisions.
The Guardian newspaper, in a series of investigative articles, said the ongoing question of concussion in contact sports created an existential threat to those sports.
Is the answer for rugby to be a game without tackling and without contact?
Just like Gridiron the answer is no and like soccer, heading the ball will always be integral to the sport.