International Rugby
Rugby could face concussion lawsuit
ESPN Staff
October 18, 2013
Wallabies flanker George Smith is helped from the field, Australia v British & Irish Lions, ANZ Stadium, Sydney, July 6, 2013
The George Smith incident in the third Test between the Lions and Australia provoked outcry from around the sport © Getty Images

One of Britain's leading experts in motor neuroscience has warned that rugby is running the risk of an NFL-esque lawsuit due to the impact of concussions in the game.

Around two months ago, in excess of 4,500 former NFL players agreed a £476m settlement for concussion-related brain injuries sustained during their American football careers. Some of the players were suffering from dementia, depression or Alzheimer's as a result of the bangs on the head they received during their time in the game.

The International Rugby Board has been accused by its former medical advisor Dr Barry O'Driscoll of failing to place sufficient importance on treating concussion. This was made in the aftermath of the British & Irish Lions third Test win over Australia when George Smith returned to the pitch after being knocked out in the opening stages of the game. The IRB, however, denies O'Driscoll's claim.

Dr Michael Grey, a reader in motor neuroscience at the University of Birmingham's School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, has begun a fresh study into concussion in sport. And Dr Grey warns rugby is one of several sports that is open to legal action.

"There's the damage not only to the individual - and that has to be at the forefront of the mind - but we must also consider the sport itself," Dr Grey said. "I believe we're not too far off from coaches and sporting organisations being held accountable for the damage and we're seeing that with the big lawsuit in the NFL.

"Absolutely a sport like rugby union could face something similar in the future, I wouldn't be surprised at all if something like that happens. If we do nothing when we know there's a problem, then I could see that type of lawsuit occurring.

"We know this is a problem and it's very clear that the information is not getting out correctly to coaches and particularly to kids when we have an obligation to inform them of the dangers."

The Rugby Football Union's head of medicine Dr Simon Kemp has previously said there is no proven association between head trauma and dementia, but Dr Grey disagrees. Dr Grey said: "Rubbish. We have very good evidence of the link between concussion and dementia.

"'Scientifically proven' - that was the phrase used to deny the link between cigarettes and cancer. It's an easy thing to say. Have we scientifically proved it? There is very good evidence now that multiple concussions can lead to premature ageing and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's. That danger is very real."

However, the IRB stresses that it has placed concussion management at the heart of its player welfare strategy with the intent of protecting players across all levels of the game. The approach adopted by the IRB - which has commissioned long-term player health studies - is based on the recommendations of the 2012 Zurich Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport and Dr Cantu (Boston).

"Rugby's approach is founded on evidence-based research," an IRB spokesman said. "This research has been driven by area experts including neurologists, has the full support of the International Rugby Players' Association and national unions and is putting the welfare of players at all levels first.

"Positive steps have been taken to protect players at all levels of the game from mitigating risk of concussion, especially relating to age-specific return to play protocols, best-practice coaching technique and outlawing deliberate hits to the head."

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