Rugby and brain injuries: RFU chief Bill Sweeney on “sad and disturbing week”


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Steve Thompson
Thompson’s news caused shockwaves throughout the world of sport

The boss of the Rugby Football Union admits it has been a “very sad and very disturbing week” for the game, but doesn’t think the sport will suffer “massive and ongoing reputational damage”.

England World Cup winner Steve Thompson is among eight players taking legal action against the game’s authorities after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

But while accepting these developments are “concerning” for rugby union, RFU chief Bill Sweeney says “we don’t want to destroy the game we all love”.

“At times like this the worst thing we can do is hide and go silent,” Sweeney told BBC Sport.

“In a situation like this I think we have to be even more transparent and even more open.

“We have to get all the facts out there on the table, everything we know from science and research, and [see] if there is any more in research we could and should be doing.

“We have to look at this as the human story that it is. Steve Thompson is an icon of the game for us, and we applaud him for his bravery in coming out and sharing his story.

“We have got to start from that point, because we all love this game. These are stories that are tough to deal with.

“But do we think it has massive, ongoing reputational damage to the game? No. Can we be complacent about that? Absolutely not.

“We have got to make sure families feel comfortable taking their kids to minis and juniors to continue playing the game, and that’s what we are focused on.

“Our responsibility now is to provide as much confidence and clarity in an area that isn’t that clear, and perhaps this provides an impetus for us to do that.”

The law firm representing the players say they are in consultation with over 100 more who are experiencing symptoms consistent with brain trauma.

A letter of claim, amounting to millions of pounds in damages, will be sent next week to the governing bodies for English and Welsh rugby and World Rugby – and a group class action is set to follow.

The prospective legal case will hinge on whether the rugby authorities historically failed in their duty of care towards the former players, long before the increase in concussion awareness which began at the start of the 2010s.

“We have had a number of conversations with ex-internationals, and people feel they were taken care of in those days,” Sweeney added.

“But you can’t compare it to today.”

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney
2020 has been a challenging year for Sweeney and the RFU

However Sweeney says he believes the rugby community – either at amateur or professional level – won’t have their confidence in the sport eroded by the situation.

“The raw emotions are [only] days old. But I would say all of the feedback I have had has been about how society has changed over 10, 15, 20 years, and how knowledge and information has changed,” he added.

“The general feedback has been that we get more out of this game than we lose from this game, whether it’s life-long lessons or friendships, kids running around, self-confidence and all of that.

“But we have to take a step back and we have to talk to the community game, our biggest asset, and we have to listen to what they have to say.

“It is concerning, but we have also to keep it in balance because we don’t want to destroy the game we all love.

“If you look at the measures that have been put in place around the surveillance, the management and education of concussion, we would say we are sport leaders in that. But we are focused on, and we do think we can do more, in terms of prevention.”

And while Sweeney admits 2020 has been a terrible year for the sport, he doesn’t believe rugby is facing an existential crisis.

“This year has been a horror in terms of Covid, and salary caps, and all sorts of things, and to be here with this one now means we have to re-think and see how we do it,” he said.

“But I don’t think it is an existential moment, I don’t think it is a tipping point. There was already good work going on in terms of player welfare, we just have to make sure people hear everything that is going on and we are totally transparent.

“But [one objective for 2021] is to make sure we retain confidence – or restore confidence – after this week about the role rugby has to play in people’s lives.”

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