It’s been a cloud hanging over rugby league since possible legal action was announced in September 2021 by a group of former players.
There are now 100 former players who have launched proceedings against the RFL, alleging that the governing body failed to take reasonable action to protect them from serious brain injury.
A similar case has been brought by the same law firm, Rylands Garth, on behalf of a group of more than 200 rugby union players.
Many of the players involved have been diagnosed with neurological impairments, including early-onset dementia. and CTE.
Rylands Garth said: “Claimants contend that the defendants were negligent in failing to take reasonable action in order to protect players from permanent injury caused by repetitive concussive and sub-concussive blows.
“Many players now suffer from various irreversible neurological impairments, including early onset dementia, CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), post-concussion syndrome, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and motor neurone disease.”
They say there are now a total of 380 sportsmen and women part of their group, including 15 footballers.
Former Great Britain, Leeds, Warrington and St Helens prop Nick Fozzard has become the latest high-profile ex-player to join the action.
He told the BBC: “I was never told of any risks. No one said ‘listen this is a really rough, tough sport, these are the risks, this is what could happen to you if you play it and then you know what the score is’.
“But I didn’t know the score. I didn’t know I was going to forget everybody’s names of friends and it would change my personality.”
Impact on the future of the sport
Although some have claimed that the threat of legal action was not about money, but instead about protecting future players, the case now has every chance of going to court.
There are growing fears that the spiralling costs of any legal case, and potential compensation, could even kill off the sport.
Rochdale chairman Andy Mazey tweeted: “‘RL family’ eh Taking legal action against a contact sport they probably still claim to love and took a living out of. Zero consideration to the impact it has on the sport, clubs and the players of today and future. Insurance premiums for one already hitting hard.”
“RL family” eh Taking legal action against a contact sport they probably still claim to love and took a living out of. Zero consideration to the impact it has on the sport, clubs and the players of today and future. Insurance premiums for one already hitting hard. Cheers lads 👍 https://t.co/C0KdW9aN2r
— Andy Mazey (@andy_mazey) April 4, 2023
The RFL have previously said that their insurance premiums have increased four-fold as a result of the threatened action.
The governing body has made considerable changes to the game in the past decade to protect player welfare, with significant scientific research being done in to concussion.
They have understandably kept their own counsel given the legalities involved.
In a previously issued statement, they said: “The RFL takes player safety and welfare extremely seriously, and it has been desperately sad to hear of any players’ difficulties. 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.”
The basis of the legal claim
Back in October, details of the basis of the legal action were revealed, with a total of 53 allegations raised by claimants.
Those included the alleged failure to protect against the risk of head injury, the lack of independent concussion monitoring and even allowing players from the age of 16 to play against adults.
- Allow, sanction, tolerate, and oversee rugby matches that proceeded without any or any proper or appropriate regard for the safety of players as regards head contacts.
- Ensure that a properly qualified individual was in charge of the treatment of head injuries within the sport and the systems, protocols and enforcement that related to the same.
- Improperly, negligently, and unquestioningly rely on the advice of Paul McCrory, who has since been found guilty of multiple counts of plagiarism and gave an undertaking in 2018 to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency not to perform neurodiagnostic procedures.
- Respond to changes in the intensity and physicality of the game of rugby league over the course of the 1980s and 90s through the adaptation of rules, protocols, guidance, officiating or at all.
- Allow young players from the age of 16 to play professional or semi-professional rugby league with adults in circumstances where they were not fully developed.
- Introduce independent concussion spotters in a timely fashion.
- Institute independent pitch-side medics leading to over-reliance on club medics who are heavily conflicted.
- Be negligently inactive in relation to head and neck injuries, concussions, sub-concussions and long-term neurological harm arising in or from the sport it governed.
Where do we go from here?
We all have sympathy with past and current players that have suffered from health complications relating to their time playing rugby league.
Clearly the advance in science and knowledge over the years means we are now much better equipped to understand the potential risks and dangers of everything that we do.
The question is whether this is mere hindsight, or whether the respective governing bodies – be that the RFL, RFU or the FA – could have warned players about these risks at the time.
There are worries over the possible outcome. What are the past players hoping to achieve from the action? From a rugby league point of view, if it is simply about education, well it seems that the governing body are well on their way with this.
Their concussion protocols, led by Professor Ben Jones, have been industry-leading, while the similar scientific work done around the return to play during the coronavirus pandemic was also praised.
If the legal challenge proceeds to court, thus creating spiralling costs, it’s hard to see just where rugby league would get the funds to cover that alone, let alone furnish claimants with potential compensation.
At a time when the sport is desperately seeking new ways to generate revenue and to find new investment simply to maintain it at its current level as a professional sport, it’s a big chain around its neck.