Player welfare demands the IRB reassesses its policy on concussion
Governing body needs to carry out a comprehensive risk assessment on all aspects of the contentious area
Ben Robinson: died as a result of head injuries suffered during a schools rugby game when playing for Carrickfergus Grammar. Photo: Alan Lewis/Photopress
In August the NFL, the most lucrative sports league in the world, announced that it had agreed the terms of a US$765 million personal injuries settlement with 4,500 retired players. The players had instigated a class action claiming the league had long hidden and failed to warn on the dangers of concussion in American football.
Players gave evidence in the lawsuit on how they now suffer from depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s or chronic brain trauma which they blame on blows to the head during games and training. The claim also accused the NFL of negligence in not regulating to prevent injured players from being rushed back onto the field.
The settlement, which has yet to be validated by a court, has been made without admission of liability by the NFL.
One week after the NFL announcement, a coroner in Belfast ruled that 14-year-old Ben Robinson died as a result of injuries from second impact syndrome in a schools rugby game in Carrickfergus in January 2011. The syndrome – the impact of two concussive-type injuries in quick succession – led to swelling on the brain.
During the inquest, Ben’s father, Peter, used video evidence to highlight three separate tackling incidences in the second half of the game involving his son. Ben Robinson, with his Mum on the sidelines, eventually fell to the ground shortly before the end of the game, never to regain consciousness.
Peter Robinson now campaigns to raise awareness of concussion prevention in schools rugby. At the elite level of the game, the debate on concussion detection and prevention rages.
The current medical protocols put in place by the International Rugby Board (IRB) generally, and at individual tournaments such as the Six Nations, have received trenchant criticism from experts such as Dr Barry O’Driscoll. Dr O’Driscoll, who once sat on the IRB’s medical committee, claims that current IRB concussion protocols are inadequate and endangering player welfare. Why, he argues, is the sport permitting players “with brain damage to be put back on the rugby field?”
At the first ever brain injury and European sport conference held in Dublin on 13 December last, the treatment of Dr O’Driscoll’s nephew, Brian, during the November international against the All-Blacks, was used as an example of the inadequacies of current IRB policy. O’Driscoll was taken from the field with suspected concussion but apparently passed the requisite concussion protocol.
Normally this would have permitted him to return to the field. At a crucial time in the game and with coach Joe Schmidt on the line, Irish team doctor Eanna Falvey nevertheless made the call to stand down the Irish centre.
Dr O’Driscoll also contends the failings of the IRB’s stance on concussion are such that the IRB is vulnerable to a NFL-type legal challenge.
Might the law makers in the IRB’s boardroom soon find themselves in a courtroom? Four points are noteworthy in reply.
First, unlike the accusation made against the NFL, the IRB has been open about the dangers of cumulative, concussive injuries in rugby.
Nevertheless, the IRB should heed the lesson learnt by the British Boxing Board of Control in the tragic aftermath of the Michael Watson v Chris Eubank WBO super middleweight title fight of September 1991.