Dementia in Sport: Legal Cases Mount as Costs become Clearer

The issue of neurodegenerative damage to top players in rugby union, rugby league and football continues to be an issue in the news. Recently, former England rugby union player Steve Thompson was the figurehead for a legal action launched by a group of former players around the issue of earlu onset dementia.

Now a group of up to 10 rugby league players is set to launch a similar legal action, while the issue also continues to rear its head in the round-ball code too. The former rugby league players have approached Rylands Law, the same firm that is handling the rugby union players’ case.

The league players, who are believed to have been retired for a number of years, are apparently suffering similar symptoms of dementia to Thompson. One legal expert, Richard Cramer, of Front Row Legal based in Leeds, believes that the players’ case is far from definitely winnable for them.

Case not definite

“It’s certainly not going to be an easy case: there are significant hurdles for the claimants to overcome but it’s not insurmountable,” he said, according to The Guardian. “There is no clear-cut favourite here; I can certainly see it from the claimants’ point of view. The RFL have treated concussion a lot more seriously over the last few years but the real test is whether any governing body in any sport were always aware of the risks associated with head injuries.”

One man whose own battle with neurodegenerative disease has hit the headlines over the last few months is former Leeds Rhinos halfback Rob Burrow. The rugby league legend’s battle with MND has become one of the defining stories of 2020, with the former Rhino’s condition also serving to raise awareness of the types of issues that former players can face.

Leeds Rhinos director of rugby Kevin Sinfield, a modern icon of rugby league whose recent fund-raising efforts on behalf of Burrow created headlines, believes that more research is needed before definitive conclusions can be reached about what action to take.

Sinfield: More research required

He told the BBC: “It certainly wasn’t in my mind as a player. You understand some of the risks to your body when you play. We need to do some research on it, we need to actually get the answers and make sure it’s thorough so we can make the necessary adjustments, if any are needed.”

The case causes a serious issue for rugby league, a sport that has seen its financial revenues plummet as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Two government loans with a total value of £28 million have been secured to help the sport, but a serious legal claim could sink the sport in the UK, some fear.

When it comes to football, the recent deaths of Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles, both World Cup winners with England in 1966, have highlighted the issues that former players can face. While heading the ball in training has been reduced at junior levels in order to mitigate the problem, there are still felt to be issues around heading the ball frequently in training at senior level.

Ipek Tugcu, a Senior Associate solicitor in the Brain Injury Team at Bolt Burdon Kemp, told I recently that she has been in touch with around 50 ex-soccer players and is anticipating a similar legal action to that launched by the rugby union and rugby league players.

In 2021, it looks likely that we will see more legal claims around this issue. How those cases go could influence the shape of professional sport for many years to come.

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