Rugby’s high-impact tackles and collisions, have provided fans with thrilling spectacles on the field for over a century. However, behind the excitement lies the potential long-term consequences for players who sustain repeated head injuries. Over the years, the rugby union authorities’ acknowledgment of brain injury compensation claims by professional players has been a complex and protracted journey, writes David Little, a Partner in our Corporate and Commercial department who increasingly handles Sports Law cases too.
The legal claim involving 125 former rugby league players who have been diagnosed with brain injuries they say resulted from playing the sport is heading for the courts, with proceedings to be served against the Rugby Football League, the British Amateur Rugby League Association and International Rugby League. Law firm Rylands Garth earlier this month formally launched the action on behalf of the players, who have been diagnosed with conditions including early onset dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
One significant reason for the delay in acknowledging brain injury compensation claims in professional rugby was the limited understanding of head injuries, especially concussions, in the early days of the sport. Until relatively recently, the medical community, as well as sports authorities, underestimated the severity and potential long-term effects of concussions. As a result, rugby union authorities often failed to take appropriate measures to protect players from these injuries.
However, specific examples of legal cases involving former rugby players have shed light on the issue. One notable case involved former England rugby player Steve Thompson and several other ex-players who filed a lawsuit against the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and World Rugby in 2020. Thompson, diagnosed with early-onset dementia, claimed that the repeated head traumas he sustained during his playing days were the cause of his condition. This landmark case brought significant attention to the issue of player welfare and sparked discussions about the responsibility of rugby unions in safeguarding player health.
Rugby has traditionally been associated with a culture of toughness and resilience, where players were expected to endure pain and continue playing, even after sustaining injuries. This “warrior” mentality made it challenging for players to come forward and report head injuries, fearing negative consequences such as loss of playing time or being seen as weak. Consequently, many cases of head injuries went unreported and untreated.
One such case that exemplified this culture involved former French international rugby player, Jean-Francois Dubois. In 2018, Dubois filed a lawsuit against the French Rugby Federation (FFR) alleging that the rugby authorities did not provide adequate medical attention after he suffered a series of concussions during his career. The case highlighted the importance of proper medical care and concussion management protocols in professional rugby and the potential consequences of neglecting player welfare.
Improved Concussion Protocols
When players did attempt to seek compensation for brain injuries, they were often met with legal challenges from rugby authorities. Some rugby unions denied the link between rugby-related concussions and long-term brain damage, making it difficult for players to establish a connection between their injuries and the sport. This legal battle further prolonged the acknowledgment of compensation claims.
One case that brought this issue to the forefront involved former Irish rugby player Keith Gleeson, who took legal action against Leinster Rugby and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) in 2015. Gleeson claimed that the rugby organisations did not adequately manage his concussions during his career, leading to significant long-term health issues, including memory loss and cognitive impairment. The case raised questions about the effectiveness of concussion protocols at that time and emphasized the duty of care that rugby clubs and national unions owe to their players.
As awareness about sports-related concussions increased, so has the scientific research examining the long-term effects of these injuries. Groundbreaking studies began to highlight the prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among former rugby players, drawing alarming links between repetitive head trauma and neurodegenerative diseases. The emergence of this new research compelled rugby union authorities to address the issue more seriously.
The growing recognition of the severity of head injuries in rugby prompted the establishment and implementation of improved concussion protocols. Rugby authorities introduced mandatory head injury assessments (HIAs) and stricter return-to-play protocols for players suspected of sustaining concussions. Such measures aimed to safeguard player welfare and reduce the risk of exacerbating head injuries.
The journey to acknowledge brain injury compensation claims by professional rugby players has been slow and arduous, primarily due to limited understanding, a culture of toughness, legal challenges, and reluctance to accept responsibility. However, increased awareness, research on the long-term effects of head injuries, landmark legal cases, and player advocacy have pushed rugby union authorities to take this issue more seriously. Improved concussion protocols and player welfare initiatives reflect a positive step forward, but more comprehensive support and care for affected players are essential in ensuring the future of rugby as a safe and sustainable sport.
Contact our Sports Lawyer
David Little, is a Partner in the Corporate & Commercial team and also Head of Sports Law for the firm. If you would like to contact him please quote Ref CB416 on either 07968 027343 or 020 7631 4141 or email email@example.com.
The above is accurate as at 31 August 2023. The information above may be subject to change.
The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case-by-case basis.