Entry Seven: August 2013

Perhaps it was only a natural step for us to run our first campaign so soon after our first big investigation in the sports department, but in August 2013 something that had concerned me for a long time came to a head. As a writer, I'd written a great deal about whether rugby was safe enough...it had turned professional without, it seemed to me, paying enough attention to whether the changes that would come about in the sport had been properly analysed or thought through. If players got bigger, tougher, fitter and stronger and if defences became more impenetrable - what would happen? And - particularly - what would happen when suddenly money was all important. You had to win to get the league position to attract fans, tv coverage and sponsors, because you had to pay the players. Winning would become everything at a time when players were bigger and tougher than ever - I just didn't think it had been thought through.
Then, in August, I saw a small piece in a medical journal which showed that the brains of rugby players were showing the signs you'd expect to see on punch-drunk boxers...except worse. The changes to neurons were greater than ever seen before. In boxing, if you got knocked out - you came off, and until your brain scan showed you were safe to carry on, you didn't have a licence to box. In rugby it wasn't like that, and eminent scientists and neurologists who knew way more about this than any of us or, indeed, anyone at the RFU, were becoming very worried by what they were seeing. Their trials were making a frightening link between concussion and long-term neurological problems.
We decided to set to work to investigate. Sam Peters led the investigation - talking to leading neurologists around the world, and to players who felt that their lives were different after suffering many concussions - they spoke of crushing headaches, forgetfulness and horrific depression.
We ran the story with an email address for people to contact us with their stories, and we were inundated with responses - depression was a common theme, but also players talking about walking out of the clubhouse after training or a match and not knowing their name, or how to get home.
I didn't want us to write pieces in the paper saying that all sports should be 100% safe - I know that's naive, and ofcourse there are risks connected to playing rugby - but does every person who goes onto a rugby pitch know what those risks are? Are they taking those risks from a position of knowledge?
The medical team who backed us and the rugby players who'd suffered thought not. The medics, in particular, thought that not enough was being done to analyse what the real long-term impact of multiple concussions was. When we went to the RFU with our questions, they told us there was no proven link between dementia and multiple concussions. If I'm honest - they dismissed us to start with. But all the time, the eminent surgeons continued to say that the links were there.
Then there was the tragic story of a boy called Ben who died on the rugby pitch, aged 14, because he suffered concussion, noone knew, and he carried on playing, when he went into contact again he was concussed and never recovered. By the next morning he was dead. That was enough for me - we were in a glorious position to act - we had to do something.
Hence, our campaign started. We had key campaign aims - like: we wanted independent research into the long term impact of concussions and for all players and coaches to have training in better understanding concussion (prompted by the horrific story about Ben), but one of the key things I wanted to do was raise the issue, and get people talking and thinking. I wanted a situation whereby whenever someone was knocked unconscious on a pitch, everyone knew that the right thing to do was get them off the pitch. I wanted all sports to look at themselves and work out whether they were doing everything they could to keep their players safe.
The campaign had some tough times - governing bodies, coaches and referees briefed against us and tried to make our campaign look worthless. But, slowly people came round and though it may sound boastful to say it - I think we've made a difference. The BBC and The Guardian ran big pieces about the subject recently, and other papers have touched on it too. The issue is now in the mainstream and it's being talked about.
This is not apolitical correctness gone mad, nor is it about saying that rugby is unsafe. It's not unsafe. It just needs to stop a while and listen to the experts - the neurosurgeons who understand the brain. If someone breaks a leg in a game, he comes off - you can see the damage and feel the damage. If someone bangs their head, you might not see the damage straight away but that damage may never mend, so why risk putting them back on? A broken leg mends; a broken brain doesn't.
Our campaign will run and run and we'll offer all the help we can to players who are hurt, and we'll battle again intransigence from governing bodies.
This is just sport - it's not war and despite the witty reflections of coaches - it's not life or death. Let's just be sensible with players and look after them properly.