Mark Keohane, writing for “Keo’s Corner” in The Cape Times and IOL Sport
As a nine year old, who back then propped up the scrum, I took a blow to the head in a midweek schools match. I told the referee, who was our coach, that I was having trouble seeing. I told him that every time I focused on a player, I saw three of them. He told me to stop moaning and to tackle the player in the middle.
It makes for an amusing story and I’ve told it plenty of times, but it also typified the ignorance around concussion and head knocks in rugby.
The game, in the past decade, has been transformed in its thinking when it comes to concussion and there has been a massive educational drive on player safety and player welfare, especially at youth level.
The sport’s custodians have claimed that player welfare is a priority and that coach, referee, player education and best practice protocols have been implemented across the game and that rugby has been an industry leader in its approach to head injury assessments and concussion protocols.
A statement from World Rugby this week emphasised that medical evidence and research was ongoing and constantly evolving.
World Rugby was reacting to a group of players, numbering more than 100, who have filed a lawsuit against World Rugby and specific national union’s, claiming that the sport’s governing bodies failed to provide sufficient protection from the risks caused by concussions.
England’s 2003 World Cup winner Steve Thompson, along with several other players younger than 40 years-old, claimed the sport has left them with permanent brain damage and that members of the group have all been diagnosed with the early signs of dementia, which they say came from repeated blows to the head.
World Rugby, in acknowledging the case, said in a statement ‘we have been deeply saddened to hear the brave personal accounts from former players … We take player welfare extremely seriously and as a result of scientific knowledge improving, rugby has developed its approach to concussion surveillance, education, management and prevention across the whole game.
But there’s the kicker in the statement: ‘Rugby is a contact sport and there is an element of risk to playing any sport.’
Thompson and the rest of the group are arguing there wasn’t enough education on the effects of head knocks and that not enough was done to prevent injury during their professional careers.
The case will be the most significant for professional players because it was set a precedent of what will follow, with the most obvious that being a professional rugby player is a career choice and not something enforced on anyone.
World Rugby’s legal team, while focusing on what is being done to minimise the risks in relation to head injuries, will surely go the route that the player knew the risk when they chose rugby as a profession.
When you look at how the game has evolved in the past decade, it is no longer just a contact sport, but one massive collision after the other. Players clean each other out, to protect a ball on the ground, and there is no regard for welfare in those cleanouts.
The head is now off limits, but that doesn’t mean the head doesn’t take a pounding at the bottom of a ruck.
Thompson and the retired players may have a case that previously not enough was done, but I don’t see how any current player will have a case because they know the risk and possible health consequences.
And no player should be surprised that when he or she signs their professional contracts, they also sign an indemnity form in relation to head blows because they know the risk.