Sport, concussion and money

By Simon Gentry

In 2012 a ground-breaking and precedent-setting legal challenge between the US National Football League and 4,500 former players was settled by the NFL when it agreed to set aside $1 billion in compensation for those suffering from brain injury associated with dementia and other neurological conditions which might have been caused playing high-impact American Football.

Scroll forward nearly ten years to today when the media regularly reports on pressure being applied to sports’ governing bodies, particularly rugby and football (our version), by former players suffering from, or concerned about, brain injury.  The governing bodies of both rugby and football are responding but slowly and reluctantly.  They appear confused and slightly alarmed by the implications.

The clamour for action is, however, growing and it is unlikely to be seen off with trinkets or can-kicking inquiries and commissions.  The issue of brain injury poses an existential threat to rugby and would demand a dramatic change in the nature of football if these sports were really to begin to address the actual cause of the harm: repeated blows to the head.

Would rugby be possible without tackling?  Tag rugby exists and is played and enjoyed by children and old men, but it’s not rugby, it shares none of the visceral, heart-stopping, adrenaline-rush excitement of the chase and tackle we so enjoy in top-flight rugby.

Similarly, the elegance and sheer perfection of a football headed into the back of the net in a top-flight football match is a wonder to behold.  To see it banned, as is being suggested, would diminish and remove some of the magic of the game.

People have been worrying about the impact of the tackle in rugby and heading footballs for many years.  Gary Lineker claims never to have headed a ball in his professional career, because of concern about injury.  In the past however, all they could do was worry.

That’s about to change.

The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee is mid-way through an inquiry into concussion in sport as concerns grow over the potential risks of long-term brain injury.

Evidence of the damage to the brains of sportsmen and women who repeatedly receive blows to the head is building rapidly.  We now know, for instance, that professional footballers at three and a half times more likely to suffer from neurological degeneration than the rest of the population.

The huge influx of money into first football and now rugby is another driver of change.  Suing the amateur FA or the pre-professional Rugby Football Union would have not yielded much, but with the FA turning over billions and huge venture capital investors buying the commercial rights to rugby from governing bodies, it opens a rich source of support for those damaged on the pitch.

It may be that the sports’ governing bodies and their commercial partners see this as just another commercial risk, insure against and forget about it.  They may make some changes such as allowing concussion substitution, currently permissible in rugby, and being contemplated in football, but other than that doing nothing.

Alternatively, investors may look at the scale of a risk that is potentially unquantifiable and decide that there are other, less risky assets they can invest in.

And parents, some already wary of rugby, may begin to steer their children away from football to less dangerous sports.  Games where contact between the head and fast-moving heavy objects is accidental rather than an integral part of the game.

As someone who loves rugby, I find the idea that the tackle could be softened or removed completely very sad indeed.  The thwack of two athletes crashing into each other as they struggle for possession of the ball in front of 80,000 fans is immensely exciting.  On the other hand, I guess ancient Romans felt the same way when their emperors banned sending Christians into fight lions in the colosseum.