A well known sports doctor has put out a warning that rugby union can expect a major string of legal claims by former players who are suffering the effects of concussion injuries. The former Ireland international and now sports medicine expert Barry O’Driscoll told an audience at the Professional Rugby Concussion forum on Thursday that lawyers have started “licking their lips” and that the sport may soon be in a situation similar to American football. There, the National Football League recently settled for $765m in a lawsuit brought by over 4,500 former football players who claimed the league had concealed the risks inherent to long-term brain damage.
Speaking at the forum, O’Driscoll said that rugby authorities had become “cavalier in the extreme,” bordering on madness, in the way they approached concussion. He used these strong words the same day as Labour MP Chris Bryant — himself a rugby player — called for parliamentary debate on concussion in sport.
Bryant stated that there is hard evidence that players who are forced to return to play after concussion easily find themselves suffering.
The Professional Rugby Concussion forum saw players, doctors, and coaches come together in order to improve the general understanding of issues surrounding concussion. O’Driscoll’s views were at the extreme end of what was discussed. (O’Driscoll originally tendered his resignation from the medical advisory board of the International Rugby Board to protest the way it handled concussion.)
O’Driscoll believes that the new IRB Pitch-side Concussion Assessment, or PCSA, provides insufficent protection to players against the risks of a serious injury. The PCSA requires players who are suspected of suffering with concussion must leave the field and undergo a five minute batters of standardised tests.
According to O’Driscoll, the mere suspicion of concussion should be sufficient cause to take a player out of a game. He thinks lawyers are seeing a major opportunity in the sport’s handling of the injury. In his view players who are given a PCSA and then allowed to go back into the game might start experiencing severe depression or migraines in five to ten years.
The head of sports medicine for the Rugby Football Union, Dr. Simon Kemp, explained at the forum that since the introduction of the PCSA, the instance of players who return to the field while suffering a concussion has fallen to 13% from 56% of diagnosed cases.
If O’Driscoll’s claims are true than this would not be the first time rugby teams have taken a cavalier attitude towards player health in the interest of winning matches. Though fans with World Cup rugby tickets will likely not be seeing “loaded” players due to enhanced testing standards, this hasn’t always been true: according to French investigative journalist Pierre Ballester, the French national rugby team was “loaded” with performance enhancing drugs during the 1980s, including during the team’s ferocious Nantes defeat of the All Blacks in 1986.
The All Blacks had won the previous Test match 19-7 in Toulouse the week before, but then the French players inflicted a 16-3 defeat on the other team at La Beaujoire Stadium in Nantes. According to the French team doctor during that period, Jacques Mombet, the French had used amphetamines to come back from the defeat. Mombet says the players each had a “little pill” put in front of their plates at the meal before the match.