Damian Hopley, the chief executive of the Rugby Players Association, has described cases of early-onset dementia among its membership as “horrendous” and a “wake-up” call for the sport.
The World Cup winner Steve Thompson and seven other former players have revealed they are proposing to bring legal proceedings against World Rugby – the game’s governing body – the Rugby Football Union in England and the Welsh Rugby Union over what they claim is their failure to protect them from the risks caused by concussions.
The former players, who are all under the age of 45, have been diagnosed with the early signs of dementia and blame repeated blows to the head.
Hopley believes the sport has to change to protect its players. “It’s been very distressing for everyone,” he said. “I do think there’s a momentum around this. Clearly, what’s come out in the last 48 hours has been horrendous to read. Watching Alix and Mel Popham and Steve Thompson talking about it, Michael Lipman – it’s a huge wake-up call for the sport.”
His views are echoed by Christian Day, the head of player affairs at the RPA. “The real story here is just about those players,” he said. “I’m a young retired player myself and we have to ensure that the players are going to get the care they need. We, as a welfare organisation, can’t sit still. We have to keep improving this game and we have to get away from the whole ‘game’s gone soft’ quotes we hear so much.”
The RPA was singled out in the players’ “15 commandments” as an organisation they believe needs reform. The charge is often levelled that the RPA receives funding from the RFU and Premier Rugby, a position that must compromise its ability to defend the players’ interests.
“Every single player association in the world is funded by the sport they’re involved with,” Hopley said. “[Football’s] PFA model is different because they get greater television revenues. We are seeking greater independence from the RFU and Premiership rugby clubs but that has never compromised any decisions we’ve made.”
The players’ unions of those other sports around the world are very often emboldened by collective bargaining agreements, which not only require the relevant governing bodies to fund them but allow the unions to be militant in defending their players’ rights. English rugby does not benefit from such an arrangement.
“Would we like a collective agreement? Absolutely,” Hopley said. “We have sought one. But who do we collectively bargain with, is the question. You’re looking at 13 different entities in the Premiership clubs. And the RFU is a 14th. It’s been very well documented that the 13 clubs can’t agree on an awful lot between them. And they certainly can’t agree on a lot with the RFU. So we are in this sort of juxtaposition between the two.”
The need to address such incoherent governance structures has intensified already after the stresses imposed by Covid-19 but the plight of former players with dementia raises the importance of cohesion still further.
Hopley has reacted with anger to reports the RPA is about to take legal action against the players’ lawyers. “The suggestion we’re going to be suing the lawyers who are representing players that we represent is just a nonsense. I know we’re sitting ducks as an organisation but I feel at times there’s a lot of misinformed and inaccurate assumptions made. We do deny some of the allegations made about us being compromised or conflicted, because we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t going in there trying to get the best possible rugby environment for our players. And we think England is one of the best rugby environments in the world.”
Rob Baxter, the coach of Exeter, English rugby’s domestic and European champions, agreed. He has urged parents and youngsters not to be put off by recent developments.
“What happened with these guys is tragic but it’s way down the line,” he said. “The difference between then and now is so significant that there is little value in comparing the two periods. It is not easy now for a player with concussion to get back on to the field. Rugby is probably now a leader in monitoring return-to-play safety practices around head injuries. The system has been in place for a number of seasons and is looked at in greater detail each year.
“The recent headlines will create a level of worry for parents and young players. Alongside the important discussions that will happen there needs to be an understanding of the steps taken before a concussed player returns to training. We have an independent doctor at Exeter watching a game, which he can stop for a head injury assessment.”
Meanwhile, Michael Turner, a sports physician in charge of the International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation, has told The Times: “I do think the governing bodies are at risk. Rugby has multiple governing bodies. The duty of care is unclear. They [the lawyers representing the rugby players] clearly feel the governing body has a responsibility. Rugby players are in a prime position to sue.”