Dec 14, 2020

Ex-rugby players launch class action over dementia ‘epidemic’

As former England rugby player Steve Thompson revealed his diagnosis of early onset dementia, the world’s eyes have turned to the class action being brought against World Rugby. 

“It’s the rugby that’s put me through this,” the 42-year-old said in an interview with The Guardian.

“I finished up with nothing really at the end of it.

“I have no recollection of winning the World Cup in 2003 or of being in Australia for the tournament,” he said.

Richard Boardman, the representative of the initial seven retired players who are taking the lawsuit to the governing rugby bodies, said that regardless of the outcome, it is the responsibility of World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union to create immediate reform to reduce the number of future players developing or exacerbating existing neurological conditions. 

“We believe that up to potentially 50% of all former rugby union players that played in the professional era could end up with neurological complications. We are not saying it’s 50% guaranteed, nor are we saying that all the neurological complications will be dementia. There’s guys with epilepsy and post-concussion syndrome and various other difficulties,” Mr Boardman said in an interview with The Guardian.

“That’s an epidemic, and whether you believe the governing bodies and World Rugby are liable or not, something has to be done to improve the game going forward.

“We can’t do trial by media, so now we’ve announced the litigation we’ve got to take a step back.

“But immediate changes need to be made to the game to protect the current generation and future players. The collisions are just as big now, the speed of the game, the workload, and there’s nothing to suggest what’s happened to Steve and Alix (Popham) and Michael (Lipman) won’t happen to current and future generations.”

Much like Thompson, Alix Popham and Michael Lipman, who are in their early 40s, have both been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). 

Mr Boardman also revealed that, along with the current group of seven ex-players on the class action, that number could increase to around eleven within the next few weeks, and that he is currently working with at least 110 ex-players, ranging in ages from their 20s to their 50s. 

According to leading brain injury lawyer, Ipek Tugcu of Bolt Burdon Kemp, the impact on the governing bodies could be “astronomical” if they are found to be in breach of their duty of care. 

“The financial pay-outs per athlete could easily reach six-figure sums, or more, as they will need to cover all injuries and financial losses due to the injury,” she said in an interview with The Guardian. 

“Money aside, I would expect very swift and robust changes to be made to the game to fill in any gaps which could leave the governing bodies open to more legal action.”

As part of the first generation of full-time rugby players, following the move to turn the game professional in the mid-90s, those taking the class action are the first people to live with and discover the long-term effects of ongoing concussions and head injuries. The ex-players are claiming the governing bodies have failed in their duty of care due to the lack of action on the known risks of head injuries in players, particularly in light of the intensification of the sport following the move to professionalism. 

The players behind the class action are seeking compensation for the neurological repercussions they are living with, along with the impact on their employment prospects and the cost of care for themselves and their families as their conditions progress. 

They are also proposing a list of measures, which they are calling their ‘15 commandments’, to bring reform to the game. These include limiting the amount of contact in training, reducing tactical substitutions, along with several other measures, designed to improve the detection of brain injury and the care of those affected. 

Along with the claim he no longer remembers winning the world cup in 2003, Thompson told The Guardian he has become prone to mood swings, panic attacks, is far less sociable than he used to be, and that he regularly experiences memory loss, sometimes forgetting his wife’s name. 

“You see us lifting the World Cup and I can see me there jumping around. But I can’t remember it,” he said. 

“I’d rather have just had a normal life. I’m just normal. Some people go for the big lights, whereas I never wanted that. Would I do it again? No, I wouldn’t. I can’t remember it. I’ve got no feelings about it.”

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