Impending brain injury lawsuit could signal huge shift in rugby

While the 2023 Rugby World Cup was deemed a resounding success, with record crowds packing stadiums across France, the global tournament was played against an ominous backdrop of a brain injury lawsuit that could rock the sport’s very foundation.

England World Cup winner Phil Vickery and former Wales centre Gavin Henson were recently included among 295 ex-players suing three of the sport’s governing bodies, helping make the issue of concussion difficult to ignore.

Rugby is the latest sport to face a reckoning because of its high concussion rate — either make the sport safer to play or risk costly lawsuits that could threaten its financial viability.

The 295 former players allege that World Rugby, England’s Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union failed to put in reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of players.

Gavin Henson, rugby safety

Former Wales centre Gavin Henson is one of the players involved in the lawsuit. Here he is in action for the Dragons in a European Challenge Cup match against Bordeaux Begles in 2018. (Photo: Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

The diversity of the group — men and women, amateur and professional, ranging in age from 22 to 80 — shows the sheer scale of the damage.

Former England hooker Steve Thompson is a heartbreaking example and was among the first to file a legal claim. The 45-year-old has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and has said he does not remember winning the 2003 tournament.

The application for a group litigation order is expected to be decided by London’s high court in April or May.

Safety rules

The suit raises questions about whether rugby could withstand an NFL or NHL-style lawsuit. Will it adapt safety rules to avoid future lawsuits? 

The NFL settled a groundbreaking lawsuit in 2013 with a probable total cost of more than $1-billion involving thousands of former players. In 2019, the NHL paid $18.49-million to settle a concussion lawsuit brought by more than 100 former players.

Read more in Daily Maverick: International expert panel revises concussion protocols to mitigate against harmful consequences

The UK case is one ripple amid what feels like an impending tidal wave of change. Earlier this month England’s Rugby Football League ruled that tackling above the armpit in the 13-man code will be banned in matches from next year to increase the sport’s safety.

Steve Thompson

Steve Thompson of England. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

There is also pressure for change in soccer. The Premier League has urged the law-making International Football Association Board (Ifab) to trial temporary substitutions to allow players with head injuries to be assessed, a call supported by global players’ union Fifpro.

There is ongoing research around the brain injury risks of heading the ball, including the Journal of the American Medical Association’s study of more than 450 retired professionals in the UK published in July which found the “risk of cognitive impairment increased with the cumulative heading frequency.”

Days later, Canada midfielder Quinn and Costa Rica’s Rocky Rodriguez were among players spotted wearing the Q-Collar, a horseshoe-shaped half-ring worn around the back of the neck, at the 2023 Women’s World Cup as the quest for protective gear continues.

The NFL has seen more and more players wearing Guardian Caps — protective soft shells that cover helmets that have been shown to decrease concussion risk — in training although there are still no plans to wear them in games. Reuters/DM


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