TO A fortnight ago I had an email conversation with a man who used to work as a development officer for the Rugby Football Union. We were talking about the first round of the Six Nations, about concussion, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and what he called the “cognitive dissonance” involved in enjoying the physicality of the game and at the same time recognizing the damage it can do to children. players. And then we came to an interview he had just done with Peter Robinson, whose son, Ben, died of second impact syndrome while playing a school game in Northern Ireland in 2011. He remembered Ben’s story well, because he was working at RFU at that moment.
“I also denied the risks of rugby,” he admitted, “and said things like ‘I could have been hit by a bus walking down the street.’ Now that I know and understand the risks of a concussion, repetitive head impacts, and long-term results, I often think back then and wish I had done better. “
Reading that brought my mind back to 2013, when I first reported on the Ben Robinson story. I had a lot of conversations like that back then. Not with him, but with other people at RFU, World Rugby and elsewhere, men who wanted to talk about the risks involved, either because they didn’t understand them, or worse still, because they did and were in denial.
Peter Robinson heard such variations on that bus argument so often that he had a well-rehearsed response: “Yes,” he said, “there is risk crossing the street, so we teach children the Code of the Green Cross. So what do we do for rugby? ”
Not that he had a great understanding, or even a real awareness, of the risks. He was only trying to report on concerns raised by Robinson and other experts, such as Dr. Barry O’Driscoll, who resigned in protest from the World Rugby medical committee because he did not agree to their concussion protocols. But it must be said that such counterarguments made the job of reporting much more difficult.
Reading them now, coupled with the admission that they were wrong, there seems to be two ways to take it. One is to regret what he says about the past, as a former pro I spoke to recently: “I’m screwed with people for denying this, why would anyone think that it’s not going to be a problem in rugby, when the NFL, even though they have not admitted guilt, they began to implement measures to address it in 2011. “
The other is to welcome what he says about the present, as my colleague pointed out the evidence of a paradigm shift on this issue, which “takes decades and many people.”
As attitudes have changed, it was seen, read and heard last weekend, in reaction to Matthew Carley’s decision to send off Zander Fagerson for a dangerous play during Scotland’s game against Wales. For once, the number of people complaining was so high in print, television, radio and social media that the old and tedious debate over whether or not it was a sign that the game had “weakened as soon as it had a chance to begin. Anyone who wants to bring it up again can now go and argue with Alun Wyn Jones.
“It’s tough, I’m sorry for Zander,” Jones said, in a characteristically authoritative way of the situation, “but as players we all have to follow the mandate.”
There is zero tolerance for reckless head contact. That’s it. Even the Scottish players who criticized the decision backed down after the match, when they had a second chance to think about it. Hamish Watson, who said “it was silly” and “not rugby”, later apologized. “Poor comments from me, emotions were very high after losing a very close match. The health of the players is paramount. “
This slow shift in thinking is reflected in Australian football. This week, Guardian Australia broke the news that the AFL is considering a proposal to establish an AU $ 2 billion trust to provide aftercare to players suffering the long-term effects of brain trauma, divided into payments of 25 million Australian dollars a year for 80 years. It would be a huge step forward for the sport. Given that it comes just a few weeks after the AFL’s decision to double the return-to-play time for players with concussions (from six to 12 days), it is a sign that the game is getting closer to tackling the problem. instead of trying to reject it.
There will be people in World Rugby, the RFU and the other unions who will pay close attention to how this unfolds in the coming weeks. In the United States, the NFL and NHL have made similar deals with former players. If he follows the AFL, it will increase the pressure on the rugby authorities to do so as well.
The attorney representing the group of former players diagnosed with early-onset and probable CTE dementia issued a statement Wednesday: “We fully support developments in Australia and hope that the AFL will inspire other contact sports to do something similar.” Rugby should do it.
The sport has already come a long way, but there is a long way to go and if you really want to move into the future, sooner or later you will have to come to terms with the mistakes you made in the past.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism