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Opinion: Rugby: an inconvenient truth

15 September 2023

The sport’s authorities are in denial about links to dementia, argues Robert Stanier


Steve Thompson is tackled during a Six Nations match against Scotland, in 2004

Steve Thompson is tackled during a Six Nations match against Scotland, in 2004

RUGBY UNION’s show-piece, the World Cup, may be in full flow, but the truth is that the sport is in deep crisis. In the past ten years, there has been increasing evidence of the long-term damage done to players’ brains from playing the game; yet, because the full effects reveal themselves only decades after the original trauma, it is hard to process. The inconvenient truth is that some of these young men on the TV today, astonishing physical specimens in their twenties, will be shuffling wrecks in their sixties and seventies.

Steve Thompson, for example, was a key member of England’s 2003 World Cup final-winning side. Yet now, aged just 45, he cannot remember playing in that match; there are days when he doesn’t remember how many children he has.

He has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and Alzheimer’s is one of the outcomes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain condition caused by repeated impacts on the head — in his case, caused by endless collisions in training for and playing in rugby matches. Along with another 300 former players, he is now suing the Rugby Football Union for the brain damage that they received while playing the sport.

Sam Peters has been the journalist who has done the most to uncover the truth. His book, published last week, Concussed: Sport’s uncomfortable truth (Allen & Unwin), tells the tale of his efforts to highlight the problem as the evidence emerged, but finding himself constantly being opposed by rugby’s vested interests.

The majority of scientific voices demonstrating how rugby’s collisions were causing CTE were opposed by a minority of scientists, who claimed that the concussion issue was just “hoo-ha”, and that the link was unproven; and the rugby authorities would always side with the minority. For tobacco companies in the 1950s, read the rugby authorities in the 2010s.

YET, why has this only now emerged in rugby? Has it not always been a pretty brutal game?

It is an inadvertent consequence of the turning professional of rugby union in 1995. Until then, the players were amateurs, and could not commit more than a few hours a week to training and playing; even in top-level rugby, before 1995, the number of collisions was not that high, simply because the players could not cover that much ground. (There were typically 90 tackles in a match in the 1980s, roughly three per player; today, that number has doubled).

More to the point, players got bigger, too, muscling themselves up in the gym: the average England international in 1985 was 14 stone, but now he is 17 stone — and so every tackle and ruck is that much more violent. The number of injuries has increased, and the number of serious injuries has increased, not just during matches, but also during training.

Yet, somehow, even though the evidence has been before their eyes, rugby’s authorities have failed to intervene significantly. Why not? Peters answers: “When you have been doing something for a long time, collectively you’ve already assumed it’s OK. And when a different position is presented, it’s really hard then to admit that you were doing it wrong all the time.”

For him, a huge opportunity was missed when the evidence became clear ten years ago: “I wanted to say, ‘Why not be more cautious?’ If there is a risk, surely we’d all be better off collectively looking back in 20 years’ time, thinking we acted too fast than not at all; yet there was no will to push urgently [on the issue]. . . The more I looked at it, the more I doubted the motives of professional sport.”

The consequences are terrible. An arthritic knee in old age is a hassle; a brain riddled with dementia is a destroyer of human relationship.

WHILE on one level, the subject of Peters’s book is rugby and its concussion problem, the deeper subject is the inability of a culture to face up to an inconvenient truth.

The question what causes wilful blindness to obvious damage (or “sin” might be appropriate here) is pertinent to rugby; but it is also relevant to society’s attitude to the environment, or — in an example closer to home — to the attitude of the wider Soul Survivor community to their leader’s behaviour. The harmful becomes the norm; but, the more involved people are, the harder it is for them to see it.

Surely dozens of people witnessed the Revd Mike Pilavachi’s behaviour at Soul Survivor, but it seems that no one did anything about it for decades; perhaps a newcomer did arrive and found it problematic, but they saw no one else making a fuss or complaint, and so they just came to accept the culture as they found it. Or perhaps the odd individual tried to make a change, but was drowned in a culture that could not bring itself to find fault.

To return to rugby, the people who run this sport are not bad individuals: they would be appalled to think that they are complicit in driving systemic brain damage. But somewhere between the thrill of the game, the culture of bravado, and, most crucially, the rampant commercialisation, that’s exactly where they have ended up.

The Revd Robert Stanier is the Vicar of St Andrew and St Mark, Surbiton, in the diocese of Southwark.

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