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Parliament launch inquiry into links between sport & long-term brain injury

  • 05.03.2021
  • JessicaMG
  • Personal-injury
  • Brain Injury head injury concussion rugby football heading in football Heading Guidance head injuries in sport inquiry

A parliamentary inquiry into the link between sport and long-term brain injury has been launched. MPs belonging to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee will call witnesses to examine the issue, starting from Tuesday (9th March).

The inquiry follows recent legal action from both the rugby and footballing world, as well as the FIELD study (Football's Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk) carried out in 2019 which found that professional footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease, such as dementia, than age-matched members of the population.

In November 2020, Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton was the fifth member of England's 1966 World Cup-winning side to be told he has the disease.

DCMS committee chair Julian Knight told Sky Sports News: "We're going to take some evidence from players, from people who have taken part in elite-level sport, and also those who are medically trained, and governing bodies.

"We've got to ensure that protocols were followed in the past, but we've also got to ensure that the protocols that go forwards are the right ones, and we'll ensure that people don't suffer these injuries for taking part in the sport that they love. I want to know more about the topic, so do my colleagues on the committee, and we want to make fact-based recommendations to the Government and also to sporting bodies."

Class Action

A group of former rugby union players – including former England international Steve Thompson, who is suffering from early onset dementia and says he has no recollection of winning the World Cup with his country in 2003 - have launched a class action lawsuit against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union. Football and rugby league players are considering similar action. Mr Knight said:

"In rugby's case, there's a lot of talk about protocols pre and post-2001. We're not going to get into any matters which will be matters for the court.

"But at the same what we're looking to do is explore all the issues, and to find out whether or not there are any learnings or whether or not the duty of care that I think is there for all sports, is followed now and has been followed in the past."

Progressive Rugby (PR) - a campaign group of rugby union professionals, formed to try to make the sport safer - wrote an open letter to World Rugby in February 2021 outlining its concerns over player safety, as well as plans to change the game to reduce head injuries.

PR has offered to assist the DCMS committee in the "understanding, management and mitigation of risk involved in Rugby Union at all levels of the game". A statement from the group added: "As a multidisciplinary group, Progressive Rugby is in a unique position to provide the DCMS committee with assistance, evidence and suggestions for future changes in rugby union to reduce the incidence and consequences of concussive and sub-concussive injuries."

Updated heading guidelines

Heading guidelines were amended in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland last year to encourage football coaches not to practise heading at all in training for children up to primary school age.

A working group is now also looking at the introduction of guidelines for professional games. In the Premier League and the FA Cup, concussion substitutes are currently being trialled in an attempt to ensure players with a suspected concussion are not left on the pitch to suffer damaging secondary impacts. This was first seen in the FA cup game between Manchester United and West Ham at Old Trafford in early February.

Meanwhile, the Football Association and the Professional Footballers' Association are providing funding for further studies into the link between playing the game professionally and neurodegenerative disorders.

Furthermore, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are currently conducting a HEADING study which England football manager Gareth Southgate has agreed to take part in. Professor Neil Pearce, one of the lead academics on the study, said last month that organisers were still looking for around 100 more participants. He added that any PFA members aged 50 or over would be eligible.

Inquiry hearing on Tuesday

The DCMS committee said it would hear from individual players and governing bodies in a second session to follow the initial hearing next Tuesday. Mr Knight added:

"We really want to be as inclusive as possible. We want to hear from as many organisations and as many individuals who are impacted by this situation."

Last week, the committee hosted the second of two roundtables on head injuries in which they heard from athletes, governing bodies and medics.

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston said: "Encouraging progress is being made in our understanding of head injuries in sports with the significant research that is under way. With the clear commitment to work together shown by all governing bodies and health professionals, I am confident we will make swift progress in improving the welfare of our present and future sports stars. Now is the time to form a coherent approach - to prevent the risk and potentially devastating impact of head injuries at elite and grassroots level, and protect the sports we love."

Gary Herbert, Partner within PRD’s Personal Injury team and Brain Injury claim specialist, comments:

“It is pleasing to see that the government is now becoming involved in dealing with this issue.  It is clear that some sports have started to grasp the nettle in protecting people from repeated head insults and concussions whilst others lag behind.  Each sports body has its own commercial considerations which it will balance with the needs of participants and it is right that the Government is involved to set rules for all sports so that the welfare of the individuals can be placed at the forefront of any considerations.  Playing sport should be something we encourage all children and adults to do without the fear that their future health can be threatened.”

Gary is a Partner within the Personal Injury team here at Potter Rees Dolan. If you would like to speak with Gary regarding personal injury, head injuries or indeed any other aspect of this article, please call 0800 027 2557.