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Action Replay: Playing On

The aim of boxing is to hit your opponent, though not to punch him senseless. Other sports also lead to head injuries, many of them serious. In November last year the Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was allowed to carry on playing despite being concussed in an accidental collision. This was sufficiently controversial for MP Chris Bryant to raise the matter in Parliament. ‘I know there are commercial interests in keeping players on the pitch,’ he said (outside the Commons), ‘but there is a long-term health interest in taking precautionary action’ (Daily Telegraph, 8 November). There are commercial interests in keeping players fit and healthy too, so the financial aspect cuts both ways.

In January 2011 fourteen-year-old Ben Robinson died after a school rugby union game. Three times he was sent back on to play after blows to his head. Coaches, officials and his watching parents were worried to varying extents, and just before the final whistle, Ben collapsed and never regained consciousness. The pathologist concluded that it was the succession of knocks to the head that killed him, not one single blow (Guardian, 14 December 2013).

If Ben had been removed from the field after being initially concussed, he would probably have been fine. But at grass-roots level, many coaches and officials are unaware of the recommended procedures, which are not clearly publicised by rugby boards.

Professional rugby players are becoming bigger and faster, which is bound to increase the possibilities of injury in tackles and scrums. It is possible that the authorities will receive legal claims from former players, as happened with the National Football League in the US (they reached a $765m settlement).

No doubt insisting, at school and amateur level, that players carry on is part of the macho culture, the idea of toughness, of not quitting; the referee at the game where Ben Robinson died said he thought some of the players were being ‘drama queens’ (these were school-kids, remember). And taking proper care of players would require a lot of effort and organisation, and surely money too. But a sport that cannot look after its players properly is not a safe sport.

PB