A group of former players are planning to sue the Rugby Football League (RFL) for negligence over what they say was a failure to protect them from the risks of concussion during their careers.
Bobbie Goulding, Paul Highton and Jason Roach are part of a test group of 10 ex-professionals involved in the action against the governing body. The three men have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – which is a progressive brain condition thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
The players allege in a letter being sent to the RFL that, given the significant risk of serious or permanent brain damage caused by concussions, the governing body “owed them, as individual professional players, a duty to take reasonable care for their safety by establishing and implementing rules in respect of the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of actual or suspected concussive and sub-concussive injuries”.
The group is represented by Richard Boardman of Rylands Law, the firm which has also launched an action on behalf of ex-rugby union players against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union.
Boardman is representing a wider group of more than 50 players, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s, many of whom are showing symptoms associated with neurological complications.
Goulding, 49, played for 17 years as a professional, representing Great Britain, Wigan, Widnes, Leeds and St Helens. He was diagnosed earlier this month, having battled alcohol and drug addiction earlier in his life.
Highton, 44, played over 200 Super League games and, like Goulding, he was diagnosed earlier this month.
So too was Roach, 50, a former Scotland international who played for various top clubs in England in a career spanning more than a decade.
Roach said he started to notice something was amiss in his late 30s when he would repeat himself, and also had no recollection of crashing his vehicle and then acting in a threatening manner.
He said he had become “reclusive”, adding: “I used to be sociable, outgoing, Jack the lad, funny, life and soul of the party. I would go out on my own, I’d be one of the lads, probably the alpha male in a bunch of alpha males. I was the alpha alpha male.
“I’ve now gone to not wanting to do anything, frightened of situations. I now start doing things and when I come to an outcome, I don’t know how I got there.”
Another member of the group is Michael Edwards. The 48-year-old played for Oldham, Leigh and St Helens among others in the 1990s, as well as at national level for Wales. He now runs a bar with his partner in the northwest of England, but his memory is so poor he cannot fulfil any administrative work related to his business.
Edwards told the PA news agency he felt as though he had been treated “like a piece of meat” and said that the sport felt “like the Wild West” during his playing days.
He says his condition has robbed him of the memories of his playing days and he has to refer to scrapbooks or videos to remind himself.
Boardman said: “The vast majority of the former players we represent love the game and don’t want to see it harmed in any way. They just want to make it safer so current and future generations don’t end up like them.
“Younger players such as Stevie Ward and Sam Burgess have recently spoken publicly about their own brain damage, so these issues aren’t restricted to older generations.
“This is why we’re asking the RFL to make a number of immediate, relatively low-cost changes to save the sport, such as limiting contact in training and extending the return to play [following a concussion].”
Governing body the RFL follows the 2016 Berlin Consensus Statement on Concussion In Sport, which is considered best practice by many sports bodies.
All professional rugby league matches have at least one doctor in attendance who is qualified to provide immediate on-field treatment, many have two and some Super League games have four.
Two clinical groups, one of which includes representation from the Rugby League Players’ Association (RLPA), make recommendations on medical standards and best practice to the RFL.
Players are given a baseline cognitive function test at the start of each season before they engage in any contact training, and this baseline informs decisions taken as part of the graduated return-to-play (GRTP) protocols to ensure players have fully recovered from any concussion they suffer.
Players suspected of suffering a concussion in a match are taken off the pitch and assessed for 15 minutes, during which time the player can be replaced by a free interchange. The RFL’s Laws Committee regularly discusses and considers steps which seek to reduce contact with the head.
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