The 2023 Rugby World Cup in France is currently underway, but it is happening against the backdrop of a lawsuit that is heading to court. This legal action has been initiated by an increasing number of former rugby players in their 40s and 50s who have all received diagnoses of early onset dementia, motor neuron disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and other related brain disorders.
Rugby is an inherently physical sport, and players face a significant risk of injury, including concussions and traumatic brain injuries. Concussions, in particular, have gained considerable attention in recent years due to mounting evidence linking them to long-term cognitive and neurological issues, such as CTE.
CTE is a complex condition associated not with a single head injury but with repeated head traumas often observed in contact sports like rugby, football, boxing, and military combat. The development of CTE has been connected to second impact syndrome, where a second head injury occurs before the symptoms of the initial injury have resolved.
One of the most notable cases in rugby concerning head injuries is that of Steve Thompson, a former English international player diagnosed with early-onset dementia and likely CTE. In December 2020, Thompson joined a group of former players in filing a lawsuit against the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), alleging negligence in handling head injuries during their careers.
Since the lawsuit’s inception, an increasing number of players have joined, and currently, 125 former players have formally initiated legal proceedings against the Union. This case bears resemblance to a lawsuit settled by the National Football League (NFL) in 2013, where numerous former American football players who had developed dementia and related symptoms were compensated.
The NFL has taken measures to reduce head injuries, implementing penalties, fines, and suspensions. In April 2023, the NFL even approved quarterback-specific helmets to enhance player safety. In contrast, rugby does not utilise hard helmets and thick padding, but the RFU has introduced various changes to enhance safety.
One recent alteration involved lowering tackle heights in community rugby, ensuring they are below or aligned with the sternum. Additionally, directives have been issued regarding weekly practice loads, and full-contact training has been limited to 15 minutes. However, unlike the NFL, rugby teams are primarily responsible for enforcing these rules, as there is no independent players union overseeing the process.
Another notable development in November 2021 was the introduction of a special mouthguard capable of detecting concussions by analysing biomarkers in a player’s saliva.
Despite efforts by World Rugby to minimise dangerous play, there have been incidents that raised concerns about the disciplinary process. For instance, a judicial panel overturned a red card for England’s captain, Owen Farrell, due to a high tackle, but World Rugby later imposed a ban following an appeal.
World Rugby asserts that player welfare is at the core of its decision-making, emphasising a zero-tolerance approach toward foul play. They have developed a Head Contact Process designed to safeguard the head, neck, and throat areas of players, which applies to high tackles, shoulder charges, head-to-head collisions, and similar incidents.
As our scientific understanding of head injuries in rugby continues to evolve, the legal landscape surrounding these injuries is expected to undergo further changes within the sport. Rugby organisations, players, and their legal representatives will need to navigate these intricate issues. The increasing number of players coming forward with neurological conditions underscores the profound impact of the professional era of rugby, which will have far-reaching consequences not only for World Rugby but also for contact sports in general. Hopefully, the legal consequences will lead to a safer playing environment for players at all levels.
WRITTEN BY MILLER BOSMAN LE ROUX ATTORNEYS
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