Like most Queensland blokes around my age, I love rugby league.
I played it (not particularly well) on and off until I was 25, and stopped largely because I wanted an ambulatory adulthood. That has always been the problem with rugby league – playing it is like being in a reasonably serious car accident every week.
Probably because of this, few activities create the same sense of camaraderie that you get in a rugby league team. The fact that the game involves putting your body on the line for the team – and taking the inevitable pain that comes with it – builds a bond between players that doesn’t evolve in many other sports.
It also builds a very strong desire not to let down the team or your mates, and to do your share of running the ball and tackling. That, in turn, creates a strong determination to stay on the field, no matter what happens; I can’t recall ever playing with anyone who was happy to leave the field, even on a routine interchange.
Certainly, any injury which didn’t actually physically stop you from playing would not be seen as a reason to go off. Everyone played carrying niggling injuries and indeed the entire game is built very much on who can take the most pain and keep coming back; regardless of size or skill, there is a place in most league teams for someone who tackles everything that moves and never gets sick of running the ball up.
At the end of the day, a game of rugby league is a series of violent collisions between players trying to drive each other in opposite directions. Inevitably there will be injuries, and – as the general public has become very much aware of late – the players’ brains will be rocked around in their skulls. This doesn’t require an illegal head-shot, or the now outlawed ‘spearchucker’ and ‘coathanger’ tackles; the everyday garden-variety tackles that happen dozens of times every game rattle the brain as well.
Recently, the spectre of class actions has arisen, with former players now suffering symptoms indicative of brain injury and understandably seeking compensation for it. No doubt these claims will likely seek to show that there was a foreseeable risk to players and that there were precautions which could have been taken by clubs, administrators and the like, and weren’t.
What happens, though, if the evidence shows that the injuries are the inevitable consequence of playing the game? Who is responsible if the game itself is inherently unsafe?
Certainly, the research to date is consistent with the conclusion that the standard tackles are of great concern. Any search will reveal studies showing rugby league games to have a physical impact similar to multiple car crashes per match, although many then go on to somewhat glib assurances that this is not a problem (from this it might be assumed that few if any of the researchers have actually taken the field).
What is certain is that the legal practitioners bringing and defending these claims are entering a landscape not unlike a minefield. In no particular order, the challenges they will face include:
- Rugby league players take pride in the violence of the sport, and often invite rather than avoid collisions. In addition to being aware of at least some of the risk, they embrace it.
- Actual concussions do not appear to be needed for lasting damage to occur.
- Illegal play does not appear to be needed for lasting damage to occur.
- Protective equipment such as helmets or scrum caps does not appear to have much effect.
- Public sentiment and media scrutiny will be intense.
- Damage can be sustained across all levels of the sport, not just the highest and professional echelons.
- Well-resourced vested interests will no doubt bring their strength to bear.
In addition, this shapes as an existential moment for rugby league – can it be played safely at any level? Lawyers involved will face many challenges to their independence, including the possibility that the ultimate outcome may be the end of the game, at least as we know it (and possibly altogether). Literally billions of dollars will be at stake, and it can be assumed the lawyers involved will be subject to pressure from all sides.
Simply put though, at the end of the day rugby league is a violent game, a fact which its participants (and I happily confess I was an enthusiastic member of their number) are aware of and indeed celebrate. Nothing any coach, administrator or official could have said could stop it being played the way it is. It is hard to think of any precaution that might have been taken which would not have so fundamentally changed it as to make it unattractive to the players.
When it comes to safety, lawsuits and class actions (however maligned they might be by the general public) can often drive great improvements and solve big problems; but what if in this case the problem is the game itself?
If any of these actions go to trial, we may find out – and we may not like the answer.
Shane Budden is a Special Counsel, Ethics, with the Queensland Law Society Ethics and Practice Centre.