NEGLIGENCE: Ex-players plan to sue RFL over concussion risks
PA Richard Sellers
A group of former players are planning to sue the Rugby Football League for negligence over what they say was a failure to protect them from concussion risks during their careers.
Bobbie Goulding, Paul Highton and Jason Roach are part of a test group of 10 ex-professionals involved in the action against the governing body. Those three men have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable CTE.
CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – is a progressive brain condition which is thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
The players allege in a letter being sent to the RFL that, given the significant risks of serious or permanent brain damage caused by concussion, the governing body “owed them, as individual professional players, a duty to take reasonable care for their safety by establishing and implementing rules in respect of the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of actual or suspected concussive and sub-concussive injuries”.
The group is represented by Richard Boardman of Rylands Law, the firm which has also launched an action on behalf of ex-rugby union players against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union.
Boardman is representing a wider group of more than 50 players, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s, many of whom are showing symptoms associated with neurological complications.
Goulding, 49, played for 17 years as a professional, representing Great Britain, Wigan, Widnes, Leeds and St Helens.
He was diagnosed earlier this month, having battled earlier in his life with alcohol and drug addiction.
Highton, 44, played over 200 Super League games. Like Goulding, he was diagnosed earlier this month.
So too was Roach, 50, a former Scotland international who played for various top clubs in England in a career spanning more than a decade.
Roach said he started to notice something was amiss in his late 30s when he would repeat himself, and also had no recollection of crashing his vehicle and then acting in a threatening manner.
He said he had become “reclusive”, adding: “I used to be sociable, outgoing, Jack the Lad, funny, (the) life and soul of the party.
"I would go out on my own, I’d be one of the lads, probably the alpha male in a bunch of alpha males. I was the alpha-alpha male.
“I’ve now gone to not wanting to do anything, frightened of situations. I now start doing things and when I come to an outcome, I don’t know how I got there.”
Another member of the group is Michael Edwards. The 48-year-old played for Oldham, Leigh and St Helens amongst others in the 1990s, as well as at national team level for Wales.
He now runs a bar with his partner in the north-west of England, but his memory is so poor he cannot fulfil any administrative work related to his business.
Edwards said he felt as though he had been treated “like a piece of meat” and said that the sport felt “like the Wild West” during his playing days.
He says his condition has robbed him of the memories of his playing days and that he now has to refer to scrapbooks or videos to remind himself.
Boardman, who is representing these players who are suing over the concussion risks they feel they weren't protected from, said: “The vast majority of the former players we represent love the game and don’t want to see it harmed in any way. They just want to make it safer so current and future generations don’t end up like them.
“Younger players such as Stevie Ward and Sam Burgess have recently spoken publicly about their own brain damage, so these issues aren’t restricted to older generations.
“This is why we’re asking the RFL to make a number of immediate, relatively low-cost changes to save the sport, such as limiting contact in training and extending the return to play (following a concussion).”
Governing body the RFL follows the 2016 Berlin Consensus Statement on Concussion In Sport, which is considered best practice by many sports bodies.
All professional rugby league matches have at least one doctor in attendance who is qualified to provide immediate on-field treatment, many have two and some Super League games have four.
Two clinical groups, one of which includes representation from the Rugby League Players’ Association (RLPA), make recommendations on medical standards and best practices to the RFL.
Players are given a baseline cognitive function test at the start of each season before they engage in any contact training, and this baseline informs decisions taken as part of the graduated return-to-play (GRTP) protocols to ensure players have fully recovered from any concussion they suffer.
Players suspected of suffering a concussion in a match are taken off the pitch and assessed for 15 minutes, during which time the player can be replaced by a free interchange.
The RFL’s Laws Committee regularly discusses and considers steps that seek to reduce contact with the head.
The RFL said in a statement: “The Rugby Football League has recently been contacted by solicitors representing a number of former players.
“The RFL takes player safety and welfare extremely seriously and has been saddened to hear about some of the former players’ difficulties.
“Rugby League is a contact sport and while there is an element of risk to playing any sport, player welfare is always of paramount importance.
“As a result of scientific knowledge, the sport of Rugby League continues to improve and develop its approach to concussion, head injury assessment, education, management and prevention across the whole game. We will continue to use medical evidence and research to reinforce and enhance our approach.”
This lawsuit comes in a time where sport is evaluating how it can protect players and prevent dementia and Alzheimers in later life, with football one of the sport studying the impact heading a ball can have in old age.
A rugby study earlier this year found that exposure to multiple concussions may affect rugby union players’ cognitive function in older age.
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