‘Concussed’, a book about the campaign to raise awareness of rugby’s inherent danger of brain injury, is only an easy read if you are prepared to turn its pages quickly. Journalist Sam Peters subtitles his heavily autobiographical account as ‘Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth’.
Published in August, I’ve read it to coincide with the arrival in court of a legal action from almost 300 former players against the game’s authorities. Hard right now to see any winners.
Peters cites data purporting to show a sharp rise in the prevalence of concussion in rugby union coinciding with the development of the professional game, and with it greater physicality, intensity and frequency of play.
His account is laced through with the stories of those suffering cognitive impairment and worse. Heroes may not be the most apposite word for them given their current circumstances, although victims is not a word all might want to embrace either.
The book certainly has its villains – doctors, medical experts, administrators, journalists and former players. Peters appears to settle a few long-standing personal scores along the way:
“Those who claim ‘the game’s gone soft’ are the flat earthers. It is simply a flawed argument… Meanwhile those who say nothing can or should be done are akin to climate deniers.”
I’m no lawyer, but it seems as though the litigants in the attempted class action face a number of significant difficulties in the case they want to bring.
Proving a link between the matches they played, and the hits they took in training, and subsequent brain damage will probably come down to a deemed balance of probability, with the defendants’ lawyers digging into individuals’ medical histories in search of alternative causes. And class actions always risk being undermined by the weakest cases in the collective, and are very reliant on the quality of their lawyers.
Legendary England hooker Brian Moore is a lawyer though. I was much taken by a column this week in which he argues that “the central issue to keep in mind is the difference between correlation and causation, and this applies both to the law and science around concussion.” What stands out is his plea for an end to ‘sides’ within rugby on the issue.
“The increasing toxicity of the debate over legal liability has reached a point of divisiveness that is doing immense harm… I imagine that people will continue to push their agendas, but the polarisation, misunderstanding and misinformation that is creeping into this issue needs to stop,” Moore wrote.
The handling of the rugby authorities’ defence will likely be determined by the wishes of its insurers. If these sense eventual victory, they will be happy for a protracted process. The last thing that rugby itself needs. Whether or not a class action succeeds, the claimants will almost certainly win in the court of public opinion.
World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and their Welsh counterparts will likely find themselves caught between the business imperatives of their insurers and a duty of care to both the former players and the wider sport itself – and without sufficient cash reserves of their own to reach a direct settlement out of court.
The future of rugby rests in part on finding solutions to the risk of head injuries, so encouraging a continued flow of new players into the grassroots game. If that path is blocked by schools and parents reluctant to expose their young charges to perceived danger then in time the sport will wither from the bottom up.
As the legal process progresses, the publicity it generates will heighten the perception of danger, and with it the urgency to find those solutions. Not to make rugby risk-free – it never will be – but to ensure its risks are well understood, well managed and within reasonable bounds of acceptability given all of the benefits the sport can demonstrably bestow.
The Friendless Games
Not so much the ‘Friendly Games’, the Commonwealth Games now appear the friendless ones after the Gold Coast abandoned its attempt to rescue Australia’s honour and step in as hosts for 2026.
Victoria, you’ll remember, had agreed a AUS$380m settlement to walk away from its hosting agreement. Nearly five months on from this crisis erupting, I keep asking myself: if the Games didn’t exist, would anyone choose to invent them?
The Commonwealth Games Federation says it is still in confidential discussions with possible hosts. I just hope this isn’t for a retread of the mini-Olympics that has been the CWG model to date.
If ever there was an opportunity to reimagine the Games it is now. Better the CGF gets the debate on the purpose and format of its event into the open for scrutiny and fresh thinking than keep it behind closed doors and, likely, within closed minds.
Footy will eat itself
The Premier League has landed itself an 11 per cent uplift in domestic broadcast revenues for the next four-year cycle starting in 2025. But it took a one-third increase in the number of games televised live in Britain to secure that.
Some 70 per cent of matches will now be on TV in real time and the implied fee per match will drop to around £6m from a previous high of £10m.
Even so, add in the cost to the broadcasters of delivering each game and you have to wonder how they can even justify that reduced average fee to themselves – especially as the additional matches will presumably be those with lesser commercial appeal.
The Premier League will do well to hold its coalition of 20 clubs together for the TV deal after this one, with an inevitable move towards every game being shown live in the UK and the biggest clubs intrigued at what they might be able to generate for themselves if they were able to sell their matches directly to fans on a pay-per-view basis.
The strength of the league is in part down to the tension on the pitch that its financial structure enables. We know, though, that its richest want to get richer, not simply by increasing the overall pie but by taking a larger slice of it for themselves.
The England and Wales Cricket Board has announced the creation of an independent regulator, rather than waiting as in football for politicians to decree one. Begs the question who it is answerable to? You can read the ECB’s statement and form your own view here.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes his sport column at sportinc.substack.com