Head injury cases could 'open floodgates' for football and rugby players, says lawyer
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An Ipswich sports lawyer said that recent cases in rugby and football could just be the start of the sports law cases hitting the front pages in coming years.
Recently, sports lawyers have started to make headlines as the stakes involved in professional sport have increased and its physical effects have become apparent.
In 2011, the lawsuit was filed against the NFL alleging the league did not do enough to protect players from the head injuries that they knew the sport could cause.
That initial case relied on the evidence of Dr Bennet Omalu, who linked repeated concussions with a degenerative brain diseases called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Dr Omalu's work even spawned a Will Smith film, Concussion.
Since then, the league paying out nearly $1billion in a settlement with affected players.
In the decade that followed, other sports — including Rugby, Football and Cricket — have become more aware to the dangers posed to their participants at the top level.
Last year legendary Ipswich Town centre-back, Terry Butcher, spoke of the awareness among ex-players of the dangers that heading a football can cause.
He said: "We don't quite tackle with our heads in football [like they used to in American Football], but I've had a few bangs on my head.
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"I used to say about my many injuries: 'At least they were all to my head'.
"It's such a different era now. I feel it's such a big talking point because we just don't know the definitive answers.
"The way that we played and trained you sort of think maybe it has led to the fact that players are suffering now.
"In those days, physical contact was very prevalent."
Since Mr Butcher's interview a group of ex-professional rugby union players have started legal action against the game's authorities, alleging that they failed to protect them from the dangers of concussion within the sport.
Among the group bringing the case is former England hooker Steve Thompson.
Now 42, Mr Thompson is suffering from early onset dementia and cannot remember being crowned world champions in 2003, he says, because of injuries suffered in his playing career.
But a sports law expert at Ipswich-based law firm Prettys says that this could just be the start for legal cases around players health.
Dan Billson, an associate solicitor who heads Prettys sports law team, said: "Sports law has certainly become more prevalent. At the top level the main reason for it is because of how high the stakes have become for individuals and clubs.
Commenting on the legal action underway from rugby players, Mr Billson said: "While rugby now appears to be probably the most advanced and scientific sport — from a head and neck injury awareness perspective — it may be the case of the rules of the game sort of played catch up.
"After its dawn as a professional sport in the mid-to-late 90s you had players become stronger and more athletic in a very short period. And it just may have been the case that the rules of the sport didn't adapt to protect players at the same pace.
"It is interesting to wonder how far the floodgates will open in other sports will depend on the result in this one."
Going forward, Mr Billson sees the problems with player welfare lying in between youth sport and the elite level.
"In particular around semi-professional sport such as boxing or rugby and football," he said.
"Competitors may try to keep competing by masking an injury. For example, in football or rugby, players might be on a pay per game arrangement."
But players are not the only people who may bring legal actions, clubs too have lots to lose in big money deals.
He said: "At the extreme height of it you've got the example of Man City receiving their ruling from UEFA of a two-year ban from European competition."
Manchester City were accused of breaking financial fair play regulations, but had the charges largely overturned by the court of arbitration for sport.
Mr Billson explained: "They stood to lose significantly. Whether that's the revenue from the Champions League, the retention of current players or the manager and the ability to bring in top calibre players. So it's in their interest to appeal the ban and get it overturned.
In the future one area where more cases could emerge is eSports, according to Mr Billson.
"The eSports environment is actually increasingly looking more like a professional football environment with some eSports teams having academies in place and some of the competitors having agents," he said.
"Gamers are becoming household names to a certain generation and this has led to a need for the people involved to become better advised and protected from a legal perspective — for example, their image rights."