Modern-day rugby league players are in just as much danger of developing serious neurological injuries as a result of playing the game as the group of former internationals that intend to take legal action against the Rugby Football League, the lawyer leading the case has warned.
A test group of ten players including the former Great Britain half-back Bobbie Goulding - who has revealed he has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of just 49 - are in the process of launching legal proceedings against the sport’s governing body. They believe a failure to properly protect players against the risks of concussion-based injuries and brain damage results in negligence on the RFL’s behalf.
Richard Boardman of Rylands Legal is aiding the players with their challenge, just as he is with around 175 former rugby union players in a similar lawsuit. He has warned that despite the majority of rugby league players involved in the case being retired for some years, the risks for current players are just as high, and changes must be made to the sport now.
“There are a lot of young guys like Sam Burgess and Stevie Ward who are speaking openly about this, so it’s happening right now,” Boardman told the Guardian. “It is our experts’ view that this is still very much a live issue. A study from the Drake Foundation found that 23% of elite rugby players tested had brain damage, and the mean age was 25 years old. That’s around a quarter of guys currently playing now. This challenge is about the guys from previous generations and supporting them, but they want to help current and future generations too.”
Boardman stressed that he now hoped rugby league and other contact sports will act to put further preventative measures in place to prevent future generations from being at risk. “Our primary focus is on the retired players we represent,” he said. “We have no real skin in the game in terms of how sports regulate themselves and that’s not our concern. But what we’re hoping is that as a secondary objective, sports do change and some litigation is introduced.
“Many experts believe that return to play period of six days (after suffering a head injury) is too short and there’s an argument to copy the NFL when it comes to the amount of contact in training. Guys go into the game knowing they may break bones and tear ligaments but when it comes to the brain, there really has to be that heightened duty of care. Guys don’t sign up for brain damage.”
“The RFL takes player safety and welfare extremely seriously, and has been saddened to hear about some of the former players’ difficulties,” the governing body said in a statement. “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.”