The link between dementia and sport has arisen again in dramatic fashion, as eight former rugby union players bring legal action against the sport – including England 2003 World Cup winner Steve Thompson.
The eight former players have all been diagnosed with the early signs of dementia and all are under 45 years of age.
Thompson, who played in every match during the 2003 World Cup campaign, including the famous final against Australia, has been diagnosed with early onset dementia with probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the root cause of which is believed to be repeated blows to the head.
“I can’t remember any of those games. It’s frightening,” Thompson says of the 2003 campaign – as reported by the BBC.
“It’s like I’m watching the game with England playing and I can see me there – but I wasn’t there, because it’s not me,” he said.
“It’s just bizarre. People talk about stories, and since the World Cup I’ve talked to the lads that were there, and you pick up stories, and then you can talk about it, but it’s not me being there, it’s not me doing it, because it’s just gone.”
This is the first legal challenge of its kind in rugby union. The letter of claim is understood to amount to millions of pounds in damages, and lawyers for the eight players say another 80 former players between the ages of 25 and 55 are showing symptoms and have serious concerns.
This challenge is the latest in a growing number of sports being forced to come to terms with head trauma, and the science around the relationship between contact to the head and subsequent neurological disorders in sports is growing, if not contentious.
Originally recognised in boxers and known as ‘punch drunk syndrome’ or dementia pugilistica, CTE is a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries and is associated with the development of dementia.
The issue has gained more media attention due to the prevalence and high profile cases of CTE identified in former NFL players, including the high profile case of Aaron Hernandez who had the most severe case of CTE ever found in a person under 46.
Hernandez committed suicide in prison after being found guilty of murder. The 27-year old’s brain was then examined and was found to be significantly damaged at the frontal lobe, which impacts a person’s ability to make decisions and moderate behaviour, among other areas.
In 2011, a group of former American Football players started a similar class action against the NFL and won a damages worth about $1bn (£700m).
Here in Australia, several former NRL and AFL players have come forward to tell stories of their struggles with life post-career due to repeated knocks and concussions sustained whilst playing. Earlier this year the first official diagnosis of former NRL players was made by researchers at the University of Sydney.
Recent research from the UK found that former professional soccer players are 3.5 times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, linked to repeated heading of the football.
The University of Glasgow FIELD research is the largest study of the incidence of neurodegenerative disease in any sport. It looked at the causes of death of 7,676 former Scottish male professional football players who were born between 1900 and 1976 against those of more than 23,000 matched individuals from the general population.
Results showed that footballers had a five-fold increased risk of having Alzheimer’s, four-fold increase in motor neurone disease and a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s when compared to the control population.
In the UK, children under the age of 11 are no longer allowed to head the ball in training, while similar restrictions are taking place across Europe.
For ex-union star Thompson, his fight is about protecting the future stars of rugby.
“The whole point of us doing this is to look after the young players coming through. I don’t want rugby to stop. It’s been able to give us so much, but we just want to make it safer. It can finish so quickly, and suddenly you’ve got your whole life in front of you.”
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