A leading expert on concussion and sport has warned that professional football and rugby will face huge litigation claims in the future if the games’ authorities do not take urgent action to combat brain injuries.
Dr Willie Stewart, consultant neuropathologist at the Queen Elizabeth University hospital, Glasgow, led the Field study research, which revealed last year that footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the general population.
Stewart said there was clear evidence of the links between playing the two sports, brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition first identified in American footballers.
“We’ve got the evidence of high levels of dementia now in sport, and … from pathology studies, which says that part of this dementia pathology in these individuals is CTE, which is a pathology only encountered in those with brain injury.”
However, Bill Sweeney, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union , told the Guardian yesterday that American football, whose national league, the NFL, paid out millions of dollars in compensation after CTE was discovered in the brains of players, was different from rugby union “in the context of brain injuries”.
He said: “There is no scientific proof of the causal link between concussion and CTE, that is not a proven thing. There are differences between American football and rugby union.”
Sweeney’s tone is markedly more sceptical about the links with CTE than even the sport’s international governing body has been in the past.
In 2013, the then International Rugby Board’s chief medical officer Martin Raftery said: “CTE is a form of dementia, and there are studies about boxers and American football players who have suffered repetitive head injuries, so we recognise that there might be a potential link.”
Stewart noted that American footballers play only “about 14 or 16 matches” a season. “They now do not do any contact training during the season and they have modified the game considerably to try to reduce risk. The players who are playing are only on for a few minutes at a time. There’s a pool of dozens of them, if not more, so when the players are on the park it’s high impact but there’s not much of it going on. If you look at football they play dozens of games a season, training every day, the number of headers in football is going up not down, as people try to suggest.”
As for rugby, Stewart said studies had shown that the force and number of head impacts in a professional rugby and American football match were “pretty” similar.
“But professional rugby players are training through the week, contact training still, playing 30 matches a season … and the season almost never ends now. Potentially, professional rugby is stacking up even more problems than any sport we have seen.”