Former wrestler questions IRB
A leading authority on concussion in sport claims the International Rugby Board's denial of a proven link between brain trauma and chronic traumatic brain dysfunction is being "driven by lawyers".
The board of the Rugby Players' Association was on Monday 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.
Nowinski 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 765million US dollars (£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. That's critically important."
Nowinski views the five-minute pitchside examination to evaluate players suspected of being concussed as a critical step, but would like to see no time limit placed on the process.
He 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.
However, he opposes the IRB's view that "rugby is not American football and blows to the head are not permitted". Blows to the head were outlawed in the NFL in 2010, but Nowinski believes the distinction between the sports is misguided.
"Look at it from the perspective of the brain. Something like CTE has been diagnosed in gridiron players, military veterans exposed to blasts and battered spouses," he said.
"Sometimes you get caught up in the dance when the reality is that it's all about the trauma the brain is exposed to.
"Early data makes it look like rugby is not that far off American football.
"Who knows what that means eventually clinically, but certainly they're in the same ballpark. You get a lot of hits, and sometimes they're extreme.
"Rugby is beginning to take this very seriously, that's clear. Where they are today is not where they'll be in a year or two.
"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."
Keen to educate their members on concussion, the RPA invited Nowinski to London to give a presentation that was attended by Dr Simon Kemp, the RFU's head of sports medicine. Kemp and Nowinski were due to meet again on Monday afternoon.
The RPA want to raise awareness of concussion so that professional players can make informed decisions.
"We don't want to get into scaremongering here. Rugby is very proud of the investment we've put into looking after our players," RPA chief executive Damian Hopley said.
"We just need to be aware of the facts. The more we can do to help and protect the players the better.
"Rugby's almost become a collision sport over the last 10 years so we'd be mad to not take into account what's happening elsewhere."