Last week, it was announced that the NFL had reached a $765m settlement with former players and their families, who claim that the body neither addressed the dangers of concussion in the sport, nor fully revealed the extent to which it understood the problem. In the world of American Football, the tentative agreement has brought about a decidedly mixed response. Perhaps unsurprisingly so given the governing body’s poor reputation for the way in which it looks after and supports its participants of yesteryear. For rugby union, it should serve as another blatant warning of the potential for concussion, and the failure of those in positions of power to deal with it, to result in catastrophe.
The events of this summer have seen concussion brought to the fore within sport in an unprecedented manner. In the rugby world, the IRB’s latest protocols to tackle head knocks and player welfare (the Pitchside Concussion Assessment or PCSA) have been met with widespread criticism and debate, even sparking the resignation of one senior medical official. There were prominent incidents on the international stage, particularly involving Australian flanker George Smith, and scathing comments from ex-Scotland full-back Rory Lamont on the game’s attitude to concussion and player welfare. As if this was not enough cause for concern, research providing what is believed to be the first direct link between playing rugby and early-onset dementia was made public barely a month ago.
With concussion now well and truly in the limelight, the IRB should look to the stellar and on-going example set by the NFL of how not to handle to the problem. Firstly, and crucially for the American body, the settlement reached last Thursday does not hold them accountable for the medical conditions suffered by so many of their former players. Nor must they concede that the injuries themselves were caused by the sport, or indeed, expose files that may betray the true extent of their knowledge of the threat posed by concussion. In fact, the sum itself is arguably mere chicken feed in relative terms, when one considers that the NFL – last year alone – recorded a profit of some $9bn.
The class action filed by the former players and their families totalled around 4,500 plaintiffs. There are cases of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy among others. Several ex-pros took their own lives while enduring life-altering and debilitating brain conditions, most notably former line-backer Junior Seau. That the NFL has effectively seized the opportunity to stall and silence those who spoke up against them is, at best, morally questionable. That it has done so without admitting fault, or being forced to fully address the issue, is nothing short of tragic.
The problem of concussion in American Football is hardly a recent development, and it is testament to the governing body’s suppressive, suffocating “hush-hush” attitude and evasive tactics that it has taken this long to come to a head. The settlement comes just days after it emerged the NFL had pressured broadcasters ESPN into withdrawing from their fifteen-month partnership with PBS’s Frontline in producing a documentary on head injuries in the sport.
The public, fans, officials, and – most importantly – players and their families deserve to know just how dangerous a game they are presently playing. How high the risks are that they may go on to develop brain damage or a serious neurological condition. How American Football may be altered to help improve and tackle concussions and player welfare. The settlement answers none of these questions. Instead, it shows the continuation of a thoroughly backwards and downright dangerous stance on an issue that can – as has been seen – spiral well out of control.
This chain of events that followed the PCSA’s introduction has merged into something of a “perfect storm” for the IRB. Parallels can certainly be drawn between the way the NFL has remained vehemently secretive on the problem, and the “shrug it off” macho attitude traditionally adopted in the sport of rugby, even in the modern era.
This, then, must be the time for the IRB to act decisively. If the sport’s governing body required a further wake-up call as to the dangers of concussion, then it received roughly 765 million of them last week. This is not an issue that can be conveniently swept under the carpet, particularly in an age where the physical attributes of players have escalated so markedly in comparison with those of just a decade ago.
There are encouraging noises from within the IRB, though, that positive steps are being taken. The PCSA’s continued implementation was unanimously backed by a panel of experts just weeks ago, and the body can cite data that points to a welcome reduction in the number of concussed players remaining on or returning to the field of play since its introduction this spring.
Whether the trial regulation will prove to hold the answer to rugby’s growing concussion problem is highly debatable. On the evidence thus far, it requires much work yet in order to be successful and significantly improve player welfare. That should hopefully come with further review and evaluation from the governing body’s top medical men, but major concerns linger over its effectiveness as a barrier to concussed individuals at elite level.
The IRB must realise that the problem is far too great and too serious to be treated in the same manner as their transatlantic counterparts. Awareness undoubtedly seems to be at an all-time high thanks to the high-profile incidents of the past few months, and the body is now under heavy scrutiny – it simply cannot afford to get this one wrong. Certainly, if rugby’s head honchos are seeking a blueprint for the disgraceful mismanagement of such a dangerous health problem, they need look no further than the unsavoury path taken by the NFL.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images