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Concussed: Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth by Sam Peters review – rugby’s shame - The Guardian

Author: The Guardian

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/oct/29/concussed-sports-uncomfortable-truth-by-sam-peters-review-rugbys-shame

Image of Concussed: Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth by Sam Peters review – rugby’s shame - The Guardian

Professional rugby branded Sam Peters a pariah.It was he who spearheaded the Mail on Sunday’s concussion campaign against the sport’s ruling bodies in 2013.And a decade later – at the end of the Rugby World Cup 2023 – the shadow of a mass lawsuit concerning concussions continues to hang over World Rugby.As a reporter, Peters interviewed former players whose lives had been irrevocably altered by concussions and other injuries, which were aggravated or outright caused by lax rules, regulations and attitudes encouraged from the top down.The RFU and other prominent organisations in the sport shot down any attempt to question the status quo – rather bullishly, it seems.Peters makes the case for how professional rugby has become more dangerous and explains how the risk to players’ health has increased dramatically since turning professional in 1995.Distilling his argument – as he presents a host of academic reports, personal case studies, anecdotes and newspaper clippings throughout – it comes down to the following.He believes the need to appeal to a wider audience became an “unhealthy obsession” in the years after the sport became professional. Rules were rewritten in order to attract more viewers, in pursuit of more sponsorship and advertising.“Laws were constantly tweaked to speed up the game and improve the spectacle,” he says.“Collisions replaced contacts, hits replaced tackles.Passes became offloads.Tackles were more frequent, scrums reduced, hits got bigger. Money rolled in.Audiences grew.”The physicality of the players changed too.Peters notes that in 1987 at the first Rugby World Cup, the average weight of the South African national team was 14st 7lb, while at the 2019 final, 24 years into professionalism, the average weight was 16st 12lb.While previously players were taught to tackle passively, the tackle was now seen as a weapon with which to hit an opponent.“Everyone knew the sport was far more dangerous than ever before,” says Peters.He was one of the few to voice concerns for the players. He read about concussions and their link to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.Peters began noticing parallels between professional rugby and the NFL, which in 2013, settled a class-action lawsuit brought by 4,500 ex-football players, who said they were misled about the long-term effects of head injuries.But the sport’s top organisations were firm on their stance that there was no issue.According to them, no such link between repeated head trauma and CTE was proven.Peters details several issues with the way professional rugby disregarded player injuries.First, an injury surveillance audit was introduced in 2002/3, which became the baseline; however, it is “entirely probable [that the amount of injuries sustained] had shifted dramatically in the previous seven years” (since the sport turned professional).‘Unwavering passion for the safety of the players in a sport he loves’: Sam Peters. Photograph: Sarah DollarAnother concern was the lack of transparency around the data.It was collected by individual club physios and medical teams and then processed by Bath University, which meant it was effectively “processed in-house” because of the RFU’s close commercial relationship with Bath University.Peters became “convinced that the RFU and Premiership Rugby were misrepresenting the data generated” by “using individual statistics to bolster the ‘rugby is safe’ narrative”.When in fact, it showed a rise in one-off potentially career-ending injuries, which went from three in 2002/3 to 12 in 2017/18.Finally, Peters argues that the matchday medical staff were compromised.They were employed by the teams and at the behest of the coaches, who had a vested interest in keeping their star players on the field. Contrary to the pitchside concussions assessment – an RFU rule that said players were not to return to the game after a suspected concussion – medics would allow them to do this repeatedly.Peters cites both Lewis Moody and George North being knocked out twice before being allowed to play on in 2007 and 2015 respectively.The latter he calls: “one of rugby’s worst examples of concussion mismanagement”.By 2022, however, organisations began to change their stance.The RFU conceded a potential connection between repeated head trauma and CTE.Paul McCrory, “this century’s most influential sports doctor” and a key critic of the link, was exposed as a serial plagiarist, misrepresenting data and using other researchers’ work as his own. McCrory was the lead on the Concussion in Sport Group, from which the RFU took its advice about concussions.Among other changes, independent matchday doctors were employed at international games.Today there is a legal case against World Rugby, the RFU and the Welsh Rugby Union, with more than 300 ex-players involved, alleging that they suffered brain injuries sustained during their careers.Concussed is a call to action, which shows Peters’s unwavering passion for the safety of the players in a sport he loves so much.The tension between Peters and professional rugby’s top organisations is palpable; there is a real sense of mission in his voice – and vitriol for those who held back the sport for so long.Concussed: Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth by Sam Peters is published by Atlantic (£20).To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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