Brain Injuries and Sport - Are there hidden dangers in football and rugby?

30 March 2021

These are great sports to play, and watching them is a popular national pastime.  However, in recent years there has been an increasing level of concern about injuries in sport  – particularly head trauma leading to neurological disease later in life. 

MPs considered this at a recent Select Committee Hearing.  They heard expert evidence from Professor Willy Stewart, a Consultant Neuropathologist at the University of Glasgow.  Professor Stewart described how neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia, were recorded on the death certificate in about 20% of former footballers as against just over 6% in the general population. 

He attributed this to the cumulative effect of repeated impacts, which may not produce symptoms at the time, but can lead to brain injury and neurological problems later in life.  Heading the ball is particularly dangerous – not just in the matches, but from the repeated practice during training.

Rugby carries similar risks, particularly as improved training and diet means that players become bigger and fitter.

There is a legal principle called volenti  non fit injuria.  In plain terms this means that when we engage in a potentially dangerous activity we accept some of the risks.  However, that does not mean that we lose all legal protection, and those who are responsible for organising sporting events still have to take reasonable steps to ensure our safety.  This is why referees in rugby matches are so careful about supervising scrums, but tragically there have been reported legal cases where failure to do so has caused life changing spinal injuries for young players. 

Many of those involved in professional sport are concerned about a “health and safety culture” creeping in, and ruining everyone’s pleasure.  That is understandable, but as a society we have to ask whether it is acceptable for athletes to be exposed to the risks of life changing injury just for our entertainment.  It’s not quite as bad as going to the arena to watch Gladiators fight to the death, but no doubt there were those in Ancient Rome who complained when that was stopped!

As always, the wise solution usually lies somewhere in the middle, and we should all continue to enjoy sport.  At all levels, from schools to the Premier League  organisers and participants should do all that they can to identify the risks, and take reasonable steps to prevent avoidable injury.

As a solicitor who specialises in personal injury compensation claims, the first question that I always ask is whether an injury could have been avoided had reasonable steps been taken?

If the answer is “yes” then it is likely that the person or body responsible will be liable for a legal claim.  This might be a school, a football club, or a business that  leases out all weather pitches, and they will quite rightly have insurance policies to meet any such claims.  As to individuals involved in sport – people like tennis coaches, personal trainers and referees, they should also make sure that they have Public Liability Insurance.  I should perhaps add that compensation claims are not about blaming people, and I have no doubt whatsoever that all of those involved in sport recognise the need for safety.  Sadly though, mistakes that should have been avoidable do sometimes happen, and this is why we have insurance.

Further Information

If you would like any further information or advice about the topic discussed in this blog, please contact Terrence Donovan or any member of our Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury team.


About the author

Terrence Donovan is the Head of the Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury team at Kingsley Napley, and for over 30 years he has specialised in cases involving serious injuries.  He has a national reputation, and is one of the most respected and senior solicitors in the field.

In his medical negligence work he acts exclusively for Claimants.  He has always specialised in brain injury cases, particularly children with cerebral palsy as a result of birth injury, but his cases have included many conditions, including meningitisspinal injury and prostate cancer.


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