Banging Heads Together – Concussion is giving the NFL & RFU a real headache

“The settlement does not represent, and cannot be considered, an admission by the NFL of liability, or an admission that plaintiffs injuries were caused by football.”


This was the press release following the announcement that the National Football League (NFL) would be paying out $765 million to over 4,500 former players following mediation in the Concussion lawsuit. Private discussions took place in front of mediator Layn Phillips last month in the US.

The deal makes it clear that despite making these payments, the NFL are not accepting liability or admitting that the claimants’ injuries were caused by football. The NFL has been able to sweep the allegations under the carpet without formally conceding any guilt. They have also avoided the airing of any private documents that might have emerged in an open court case illustrating what the NFL may have known about concussion-linked brain problems and more importantly, when.

The case against the NFL alleged that it had wilfully misled its players over the long-term impact of repeated brain traumas. As recently as January 2010 the co-chair of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee Dr Ira Casson, contended that:

“There is not enough valid, reliable or objective scientific evidence at present to determine whether or not repeat head impacts in professional football will result in long-term brain damage.”

Pioneering research on American Footballers published last year by Boston University demonstrated a clear link between repeated concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease similar to Alzheimer’s in its symptoms – memory loss, irritability, mood changes, dementia and depression. The research revealed that CTE had been found in 30 former NFL players, who, before they died, had shown symptoms similar to those found in boxers suffering from ‘punch-drunk’ syndrome.

The closest sport in the UK to our neighbours across the pond is rugby union. Concussion is the most common injury suffered, with statistics showing one player is concussed in every five Premiership matches. The size and athleticism of players now is considerably greater than when the game turned professional in 1995. The frequency and severity of the contact has increased accordingly.

The growing fear now is that concussed players are being allowed to stay on the field or return to the field whilst showing obvious signs of concussion. This was no more apparent than in the final Lions test where Australia’s George Smith came off second best in a collision with Richard Hibbard, had a brief spell on the sidelines and then returned to the action. Common sense prevailed and Smith was withdrawn from the game for good before half time. In the short term Smith will have experienced a brief loss of consciousness, however the unknown long term consequences to the player’s welfare is a much greater concern.

In a comparable quote to that of Dr Ira Casson, Dr Simon Kemp (RFU Head of Sports Medicine) is quoted recently:

“We understand that there is no proven causal relationship between head injuries sustained while playing rugby union and the reported cases of CTE and early onset dementia.”

Last month, Dr Willie Stewart discovered the first evidence of CTE in a former rugby union player. Since this case came to light a further 10 potential cases have been presented to the Glasgow neuropathologist.

The question now is what impact will Dr Stewart’s research have for the game’s governing body? Will we see a raft of former players come together to issue proceedings against the RFU like in the US or will the RFU take greater steps to educate players about the risks they face by playing on with concussion like the NFL has been forced to do?

Andy Boyde – Sports Consultant