Children should be protected from rugby-related head injuries in the way they are from the effects of smoking, new research claims.
The study points to “conclusive evidence” that repeated impacts are linked to degenerative brain disease and says that those who play contact sport were at least 68 times more likely to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) than those who did not.
It comes in a week where rugby has been forced to confront its deepening dementia crisis, with more than 185 former players launching legal proceedings against World Rugby, the RFU and the Welsh Rugby Union.
The most alarming part of the new study, conducted by 13 academic institutions, including Oxford Brookes University, says that children should be protected from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the way they are from “lead, mercury, smoking, and sunburns”.
It also reveals that the brain banks of the US Department of Defence, Boston University-US Department of Veterans Affairs and Mayo Clinic have all published independent studies showing that contact-sport athletes were at least 68 times more likely to develop CTE than those who did not play any contact sport.
“This analysis shows it is time to include repetitive head impacts and CTE among child protection efforts like exposure to lead, mercury, smoking, and sunburns,” said Dr Adam Finkel, a co-author of the study and a professor at the University of Michigan.
“Repetitive head impacts and CTE deserve recognition in the global public health discussion of preventable disorders caused by childhood exposures.”
Dr Chris Nowinski, lead author of the study and chief executive at Concussion Legacy Foundation, said: “This innovative analysis gives us the highest scientific confidence that repeated head impacts cause CTE.
“Sport governing bodies should acknowledge that head impacts cause CTE and they should not mislead the public on CTE causation while athletes die, and families are destroyed, by this terrible disease.”
Researchers from Harvard University, Boston University, University of Sydney (Australia), University of Auckland (New Zealand), University of Michigan, University of California-San Francisco, University of Sao Paulo (Brazil), University of Melbourne (Australia) and the Concussion Legacy Foundation have also been involved, with all now issuing a global call to action to sports organisations, government officials, and parents to immediately implement CTE prevention and mitigation efforts, especially for children.
Dr Adam J White, senior lecturer in Sport and Coaching Sciences at Oxford Brookes University and executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation UK, said: “This analysis shows it is time to include repetitive head impacts and CTE among other child safety efforts like smoking, sunburns, and alcohol.
“Repetitive head impacts and CTE deserve recognition in the global public health discussion of preventable disorders caused by childhood exposure in contact sports like football, rugby, ice hockey and others.”
The researchers claimed that World Rugby were among a number of global organisations that have refused to publicly acknowledge a causal relationship between repetitive head impacts and CTE, something which World Rugby disputed yesterday [TUE] speaking to Telegraph Sport.
“World Rugby’s approach to player welfare at all levels of the game is guided by the latest scientific evidence. As set out in our six-point plan on player welfare, we will never stand still in this area,” a World Rugby spokesperson said.
“World Rugby’s policy and protocols on head impacts are informed by our independent, expert concussion working group who advise us on what response may be required to any new data or evidence. They will be studying this latest research and will make any recommendations as appropriate.”
The development follows Monday’s announcement that a lawsuit was due to be filed at court on Monday on behalf of a group of professional and semi-professional players against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union, claiming they were negligent for failing to protect players.
Regarding the possible outcomes of the legal proceedings, Jonathan Compton, partner at DMH Stallard, informed Telegraph Sport: “The governing bodies will argue that the state of medical knowledge wasn't sufficient enough going back 20, 30 years ago to claim duty of care when it came to the long-term impact of head injuries.
“Where the claimants themselves will face difficulty will be that they will be asked specifically how they can attribute any of their conditions to their playing career, when did their symptoms start, how were they caused. But their sense that it is right to be seeking compensation seems just.
“For the governing bodies, when it comes to the matter possibly going to court, even if they were to win the optics do not look good. How would it come across asking former players suffering from health conditions to defend themselves in court?”