Protect the Warriors


Competitive contact sports, whether as a participant or follower, are a massive aspect of family life in Northern Ireland and the UK. Soccer, Rugby and GAA are games ingrained into our sporting culture. Recently, we have been blessed with some great sporting events such as the Rio Olympics and 2016 European Football Championships with action in the 2017 Six Nations Rugby Championship to start in a matter of weeks. In highly physical games, such as professional rugby, players are bigger, stronger and fitter, causing fiercer collisions and more injuries. With an increasing multitude of camera angles, high definition replays and social media outlets, there is boundless coverage of your favourite team and the battles and collisions that ensue. Fans though, particularly children, will try to imitate what they see as trending by their favourite players on TV. It is a worrying situation all round.

Rugby 2

So what are these contact sports doing to protect player welfare and set the right example?

Rugby fans will note the recent change in the laws to increase sanctions for “reckless” and even “accidental” high tackles and the continuing strict governance of concussion protocols being properly exercised by club, province and country. Awareness of the long term health risks from head injuries in contact sports and the improvements required in player safety has risen extensively in recent years.

In the USA, the law has intervened to compensate American footballers who have sustained serious brain diseases due to repeated concussions. A legal action brought against the NFL by a group of former players recently resulted in a compensation settlement in excess of $ 1billion and the NFL have since invested $ 60 million in helmet improvement and $ 40 million in neuroscience funding.

Unfortunately, injuries in sports are not discriminatory and can occur frequently close to home at the amateur level. It is important to note that clubs and schools who provide the setting for and manage the participation of sports have a legal duty of care towards player safety. The standard of playing pitches, safety of equipment provided and course of action when treating injured players all form part of this responsibility. In addition, a 2003 Court of Appeal judgment stated that although rugby is an “inherently dangerous sport”, referees should exercise “reasonable care” in minimising the risk of harm to players. It is arguable that this duty would extend to referees in all contact team sports.

In an era in which there is perhaps an increasing emphasis on fitness, athleticism and power rather than flare in sport, it is important that the rules of the game and the laws relevant to player safety continue to evolve and adapt appropriately whilst retaining our sports as the spectacles and pastimes that we love.