World sport is braced for a deluge of rugby-style lawsuits over head injury neglect.
Sportsmail understands the governing bodies of football — which is battling a dementia crisis — and rugby league will be the next to face legal action for past negligence as early as next year.
Several other organisations fear they may also be challenged over what is a global sporting scandal. Richard Boardman, the lawyer leading the rugby union case, told Sportsmail: ‘We are absolutely ready for action in other sports.’
Ex-England and Bath flanker Michael Lipman (R) is one of the test subjects in upcoming research after being diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition due to sport
Even non-contact sports such as cycling could be liable for how they have mismanaged concussion.
‘It has got to be a concern for all sports governing bodies — the RFU, the FA, the Tiddlywinks Association,’ said Dr Nigel Jones, head of medical services for the Great Britain cycling team and ex-England rugby team doctor.
‘If we continue to pay lip service to it, eventually the UCI (cycling’s world governing body) will be challenged medico-legally around their absence of a robust concussion policy because that is the direction in all sports.
‘What’s a shame is if medico-legal considerations are driving awareness and policy rather than athlete health, which is what should be happening.’
Those words are echoed by Luke Griggs, the deputy chief executive of brain injury charity Headway. He said: ‘It saddens me that it may take the threat of legal action to force sport to move and to change. It shouldn’t be that it takes a financial risk but that may well be one of the key factors to getting the change that is needed.
‘If it is, at least the change will happen because there is a lot more to do in terms of tightening up on certain protocols.’
Dr Michael Turner, formerly chief medical adviser of the British Horseracing Authority and Lawn Tennis Association, is leading a study of up to 250 former sportspeople for the International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation. He says he spends ‘more time talking to lawyers than to sports medical officers’ and added: ‘There are clearly people approaching legal firms who want to take class actions.
‘There are high-profile cases where people clearly had concussion but somehow got back on to the pitch. Somebody is to blame for that, so there will be lawyers who wish to pursue that situation.’
Even non-contact sports such as cycling could be liable for mismanagement of concussion
The action being led by Boardman involves eight test cases of retired rugby union players, including England World Cup winner Steve Thompson, ex-England flanker Michael Lipman and ex-Wales No 8 Alix Popham. They are all aged under 45 and have been diagnosed with early onset dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain condition linked to repeated head injuries.
A letter of claim will be sent to the RFU, Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby next week and class action could follow, with Boardman representing 110 ex-players and predicting ’50 per cent of former professionals could end up with neurological complications in retirement’.
He says the case could cost governing bodies ‘hundreds of millions’, and it is reminiscent of the lawsuit first brought against the NFL in 2011 by 4,500 ex-American football players, who won a settlement of around £700million.
Ipek Tugcu, of the brain injury team at negligence and compensation solicitors Bolt Burdon Kemp, said: ‘If this class action succeeds, it will add huge momentum to this movement for athletes outside rugby, as well as governing bodies of all sports to up their game to protect themselves from legal action.’
Leading sports lawyer Nick De Marco QC added: ‘The science proving the link between repeated blows to the head and brain injury has been around for years. A key question the courts will be interested in is whether football, and other contact sport regulators, have taken timely and proper steps to prevent the injuries.’
Alix Popham is another ex-rugby star to be included in lawyer Richard Boardman’s action case
Former Bath star Lipman was first diagnosed with dementia by Dr Rowena Mobbs, a neurologist in dementia and concussion at Macquarie University in Sydney. She is leading a study to establish the risk of CTE in around 100 athletes from sports including both rugby codes, football, boxing, Australian rules, equestrianism, cycling, basketball, baseball, ice hockey and wrestling.
Mobbs told Sportsmail: ‘We are aware that young people could potentially be facing this. I have seen someone aged 29 where CTE is a possibility. I see people who say they might have a mild memory loss or mild symptoms. Whatever a brain symptom is, it is really never mild.
‘We could be looking at significant numbers of people with long-term damage and we need to understand the risk as soon as possible, because it is causing a crisis. Any of the sports in which CTE has been demonstrated is a concern to me.
‘From what I see at the coal face, there is one thing that’s worse than facing the possibility of CTE and that is not even having the opportunity to discuss it. It’s a heart-wrenching situation when players have died young and we don’t know if they have had CTE but there is a suspicion.
‘We don’t want to be alarmist. We recognise that, like every disease, not everyone will get it. But I’m sure the parents of today’s players will be looking for those answers about who is at risk and how we can prevent it.’
Steve Thompson, pictured here with his ex-wife celebrating England’s World Cup win in 2003, cannot remember any of the game and has been diagnosed with early onset dementia
Ross Tucker, the science and research consultant for World Rugby, believes other sports — including football — can learn from how rugby has cleaned up its act following their apparent negligence in the 1990s to the 2000s, for which they are now being sued.
In 2015, rugby fully rolled out the head injury assessment — now a 12-minute in-game test for concussion, with teams allowed to use temporary substitutes.
Tucker said: ‘I am by no means offering rugby as a perfect case, but we’ve gone down a path other sports can implement and improve on. The question for a sport is, “Do you know how many concussions happen, how and where?” And if you don’t, should you?
‘Football is in the position rugby was a decade ago, when it wasn’t assessing its true risk. If you don’t know the risk, how do you reduce it? You can’t prevent something you don’t know exists. Can a sport prevent second, third, fourth concussions? That’s about managing return-to-play. This is not trivial stuff. We are not tinkering for the sake of tinkering. They are important preventative measures.’
Sportsmail’s campaign to tackle the dementia scandal in football is running in conjunction with the Alzheimer’s Society’s Sport United Against Dementia campaign.
Dr Richard Oakley, the Alzheimer’s Society head of research, added: ‘Research like this can’t be rushed but we need immediate action.’