Time to Tackle Health Risks in Sports: Parliamentary Inquiry into the connection between sports and brain injuries begins

April 5, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Following concerns as to the connection between sports and long-term health implications such as brain injuries, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) has launched an inquiry.

What does this mean?

Tackles, headers and collisions are all familiar occurrences in the sports we watch. But how often does one consider the health risks attached to these all too frequent actions and whether appropriate protection is afforded to those on the field? This issue is now open for investigation by the DCMS Committee.

The Committee is exploring the scientific evidence behind the connection between sports, concussion and neurological damage contributing to conditions such as dementia. Interestingly, among the oral evidence already presented, Professor William Stewart of the University of Glasgow acknowledges that ‘the length of time between exposure and outcome is so long that to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt is vanishingly difficult.’ Thus, whether repetitive contact and exposure experienced throughout one’s twenties is the contributing factor to the conditions which are being identified approximately 40 years later, is largely dependent upon the balance of probabilities.

Notably, the gathering of scientific evidence is not the sole purpose of this Inquiry. The Chair of the Committee, Julian Knight MP, has identified a growing ‘number of cases involving brain injury in sport [as] likely to reach the doors of our law courts.’ Such findings signify a matter of evidential importance for the potential success of future legal claims.

What's the big picture effect?

On a global scale, concussion-related lawsuits have already arisen. In 2016, the US Supreme Court approved the National Football League’s (NFL) settlement which is approximated to amount to $1 billion of compensation for thousands of retired NFL players who experienced brain injuries. In addition to this settlement, stricter concussion protocols developed over time, including: spotters and neurotrauma experts who observe players during games, a medical tent readily available on the sidelines of the pitch for concussion assessment, as well as the threats of fines of up to $150,000 from the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee for non-compliance with these protocols. 

Significantly, cases are now reaching the courtroom in the UK. At present, a group of former rugby players diagnosed with conditions such as early-onset dementia are in the process of instigating legal action against World Rugby, RFU (Rugby Football Union) and WRU (Welsh Rugby Union). Former international rugby player Michael Lipman states that these sporting organisations ‘owed them, as individual professional players, a duty to take reasonable care for their safety…in respect of the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of actual or suspected concussive and sub-concussive injuries.’ Such concerns have also extended to football, with several footballers having been diagnosed with dementia and many suspicions arising over the consequences of persistent football heading, during games and practice. 

Reports across the sporting community certainly indicate that persistent patterns between sports and brain injuries are arising. Fortunately, this Parliamentary Inquiry is suggestive of a positive step forward in the identification of responsibility attached to sporting organisations in securing appropriate responses to the risks presented by sports, as well as the demand for greater transparency as to the risks which these sports present. 

Ultimately, whether through the Inquiry itself or the pending lawsuit facing Word Rugby, one can only hope that changes are made so that future generations are protected from these foreseeable brain injuries as far as possible.

Report written by Karolina Smolicz 

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