For years it has been recognised that the repeated impacts to the head sustained in boxing cause damage to the brain that can result in permanent brain injury. It is now recognised that other contact sports such as rugby, ice hockey and American football can cause similar injury. In January 2014 the National Football League agreed to settle a lawsuit bought by more than 4,500 players for a total of $765,000,000 for concealing what it knew about the dangers of repeated blows to the head. However the problem is not simply confined to American contact sports. According to the Rugby Football Union data, concussion is the most common injury in the professional game with 5.1 instances every 1,000 hours of rugby played. In reality the incidence of subtle brain injuries is probably much higher. Players are now on average more than a stone heavier than they were 20 years ago and the force of their collisions can be the equivalent of what the body experiences in a car crash.
Barry O’Driscoll, a Cheshire based doctor and former Ireland full back and respected expert for the International Rugby Board Medical Committee is now at loggerheads with the game over the issue of concussion. In 2013 he resigned in protest at the decision to try a new protocol for dealing with head injuries, the pitch side concussion assessment (“PSCA”). Under the previous IRB approach any player suspected of suffering from concussion had to leave the pitch and take a week off, a period already reduced from 3 weeks under an earlier rule. The new guidelines say that a player can return to the game just 10 minutes after the injury, providing a medical inspection clears him of concussion. The obvious problem here is that if casualty doctors regularly miss concussion because they believe a patient is uninjured because they are capable of responding to simple questioning, and the effects of brain injury can take up to 72 hours to become apparent, it is almost certainly going to be missed at the pitch side. Barry O’Driscoll believes that if the IRB incorporate the “10 minute rule” players with brain damage will be put back on to the field to sustain further damage and even more serious injury. He says “The game has changed since I played. It is now a big commercial sport, so what is important is to get the spectators in, get the television in. They love the big hits.”
Sadly it appears that English rugby has taken a retrograde step in terms of protecting its player’s safety, just at a time when the National Football League is recognising the significance of these types of brain injury sustained on the field.