The board of the Rugby Players’ Association was yesterday morning addressed by Chris Nowinski, president of the Sports Legacy Institute, a body established to advance the study, treatment and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups.
A former professional wrestler and college American football player, Nowinski has fought his own battle with post-concussion syndrome and is now recognised as an expert in the field.
While the IRB insists there is “no scientific link” between concussion and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) – a progressive degenerative disease of the brain more commonly known as punch drunk syndrome – Nowinski sees “overwhelming evidence” to the contrary. He claims the potential financial ramifications of accepting the link are dictating the IRB’s position, which is shared by the Rugby Football Union.
Nearly two months ago a mass lawsuit involving 4,500 former American football players agreed a $765 million (£476m) settlement for concussion-related brain injuries. Nowinski applauds the “dramatic efforts” being made to improve the safety of the game, but is concerned by a key element of the IRB’s stance.
“It’s fair to say there’s no proof of the connection between brain trauma and CTE only if you’re holding it to the highest standard of proof possible,” Nowinski said. “Right now there is overwhelming evidence that brain trauma is necessary for CTE. To try to tell people not to worry about CTE, or wait longer before you start actively protecting players, is the wrong message if they’re the people who are putting themselves at risk.
“I don’t like that message, but I also understand it’s less of a medical discussion and more of a legal discussion. People learn there are financial consequences to this new recognition that brain trauma has lasting consequences. I know that a lot of that is driven by lawyers. So on the one hand I don’t like that public messaging, on the other I do see dramatic efforts to make the game safer today.”
Nowinski views the five-minute pitchside examination to evaluate players suspected of being concussed as a critical step and expects rugby’s protocols to evolve over time and acknowledges the sport was quick to introduce baseline testing, even if it is open to manipulation.
He added: “Part of my message is to share what we know for the players so they can better advocate for themselves. The game can still be a great game while prioritising player health.”