Rugby needs to follow AFL path in confronting problem of concussion | Andy Bull
A fortnight or so ago I had an email conversation with a man who used to work as a development officer for the Rugby Football Union. We were talking about the opening round of the Six Nations, about concussion, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and what he called the “cognitive dissonance” involved in enjoying the physicality of the game while also recognising the damage it can do to the players. And then we got around to an interview I’d just done with Peter Robinson, whose boy, Ben, died of second impact syndrome while he was playing a school game in Northern Ireland in 2011. He remembered Ben’s story well, because he was working at the RFU at the time.
“I too denied the risks of rugby,” he admitted, “and said stuff like ‘he could have been hit by a bus walking down the street’. Now that I know and understand the risks of concussion, repetitive head impacts and the long-term outcomes, I often think back to then and wish I had done better.”
Reading that, my mind turned back to 2013, when I first reported on Ben Robinson’s story. I had a lot of conversations like that one back then. Not with him, but with other people at the RFU, World Rugby and elsewhere, men who wanted to talk down the risks involved either because they didn’t understand them or, worse, because they did and were in denial.
Peter Robinson heard that variations on that argument about the bus so often that he had a well‑rehearsed reply, “Yes,” he’d say, “there’s risk in crossing the road, which is why we teach kids the Green Cross Code. So what do we do for rugby?”
Not that I had any great insight into, or even real awareness of, the risks. I was just trying to report on the concerns raised by Robinson and other experts, such as Dr Barry O’Driscoll, who resigned in protest from the World Rugby’s medical committee because he disagreed with their concussion protocols. But it has to be said that the job of reporting was made much harder to do by those kinds of counter-arguments.
Reading them back now, along with the admission that they were wrong, it feels like there are two ways to take it. One is to regret what it says about the past, like one former pro I recently spoke to: “I am fucked off with people for denying this, why would anyone think it’s not going to be a problem in rugby, when the NFL, even though they haven’t admitted blame, started putting measures in place to deal with it in 2011.”
The other is to welcome what it says about the present, like my colleague who pointed out evidence of paradigm shift on this issue, which “takes decades and lots of people.”
Because attitudes have changed, you could see it, read it and hear it last weekend, in the reaction to Matthew Carley’s decision to send off Zander Fagerson for dangerous play during Scotland’s match against Wales. For once, the number of people complaining about it were so outnumbered in print, on TV, radio and social media that the tedious old debate about whether or not it was a sign the game had “gone soft hardly had a chance to get started. Anyone who wants to bring it up again now is welcome to go argue with Alun Wyn Jones.
“It’s tough, I feel for Zander,” Jones said, in a characteristically authoritative take on the situation, “but as players we all have to follow the remit.”
There’s zero tolerance for reckless contact to the head. That’s it. Even the Scotland players who criticised the decision backed down after the match, when they’d had a second chance to think about it. Hamish Watson, who said “it was a rubbish call” and “not rugby” apologised later. “Poor comments from me, emotions were very high after losing a very tight match. Players’ health is paramount.”
This slow shift in thinking is being mirrored in Australian Rules Football. This week Guardian Australia broke the news the AFL is considering a proposal to establish a A$2bn trust to provide for the aftercare for players suffering the long-term effects of brain trauma, split into payments of A$25m a year for 80 years. It would be a huge step forward for the sport. Since it comes just weeks after the AFL’s decision to double the return-to-play time for concussed players (from six to 12 days), it is a sign the game there is moving closer towards confronting the problem instead of trying to disown it.
There will be people at World Rugby, the RFU and the other unions paying close attention to how this situation develops in the next few weeks. In the US, the NFL and the NHL have agreed similar settlements with former players. If the AFL follows, that will increase the pressure on the rugby authorities to do it too.
The lawyer representing the group of former players diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable CTE, issued a statement on Wednesday: “We’re entirely supportive of the developments in Australia and hope the AFL inspires other contact sports to do something similar.” Rugby needs to do so.
The sport has come a long way already, but there’s a distance left to go and if it really wants to move into the future then sooner or later it is going to have to reconcile itself to the mistakes it made in the past.