For those of you who may have missed the story, eight former English and Welsh rugby union players, including several high profile internationals, are preparing to take legal action for negligence against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union in England, and the Welsh Rugby Union.
Each of the litigants is under the age of 45, and all have been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). They are claiming that the defendants did not protect them from the risks of concussion.
The lawyers who are running the test case believe that they have evidence to suggest that rugby “should have been aware of the long-term risks of dementia type injuries being caused by repetitive blows to the head”, according to The Times. There are further players who may join the action.
The litigants will be seeking financial compensation for the medical conditions they are suffering and lost earning capacity. They are also presenting the so-called “15 commandments”, a list of changes to reduce the future incidence of head trauma.
• Limiting contact training
• Limiting the use of tactical substitutions, such as when the substituted player is not injured
• Use of technology to continuously monitor a player’s baseline brain assessment
• Requiring players to have a licence to play, depending upon their brain assessments
Obviously, this case is yet to be played out, but if the test litigants are successful the floodgates will quickly open, resulting in further class actions and/or out-of-court claim settlements. Note, that when faced with a similar issue some years ago, the NFL in America paid compensation of around US$1 billion (A$1.34 billion).
The issues at stake here clearly don’t just relate to rugby, as all contact sports including rugby league, football and, yes, even cricket are in the frame.
A number of league players have come forward in recent times citing their concussion related their health concerns, even prompting some to donate their brains to medical science, after their death of course, so that the effects of head trauma cane be measured.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that there are many more who are either currently maintaining their silence, or are as yet unaware of any medical issues.
In the season just gone, concussions and the HIA have been front of mind as many players have been required to leave the field after suffering concussion, and some have missed games for the following reason.
You don’t need to look any further than the injuries to Australia, New South Wales and Roosters captain Boyd Cordner to get a sense of how critical this issue is.
So what can the league do about it? You can’t play the game we all love and not have a fairly high level of impact.
Head trauma can be caused just as easily from a correctly and legally executed tackle as it can from an errant shoulder charge.
Obviously, insurance would be part of the solution but insurers tend to walk away from claims when the insured exhibits negligence, so doing nothing and relying upon an insurance policy to clean up the mess isn’t an option.
There’s no doubt that Peter V’landys and his fellow sports administrators have their eye on this issue, and they need to come up with a solution sooner rather than later that limits both the injuries to the players, and any future damages claims.
I say future, because those injured players already in the system may yet have their day in court if the UK case is decided in favour of the litigants. It’s important to note here that damages claims don’t take into account the guilty party’s capacity to pay, or the resultant financial impact.
For example, if 100 players were each granted compensation of $5 million each, it just may be the end of the NRL as we know it.
Clearly, minimising risk and being proactive is the best course of action. Some of the things that the NRL could do include:
1. Reviewing and implementing some or all of the actions suggested in the 15 commandments.
2. Ensuring that players are given a HIA immediately the incident occurs. There are plenty of examples last season of players taking a hit to the head and either not leaving the field for an assessment at all, or leaving only after a suitable break in play.
3. Standing down injured players and, in the worst cases, not allowing them to play again.
No solution is perfect but doing nothing doesn’t look like being an option. There’s too much at stake.