Rugby Hangs Future Uncertain Amid Billion-Dollar Lawsuit Threat

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Rugby Hangs Future Uncertain Amid Billion-Dollar Lawsuit Threat
Rugby Hangs Future Uncertain Amid Billion-Dollar Lawsuit Threat © Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Rugby's rugged nature is known to all; its fierce battles on the field are nothing for the weak. As one of the most punishing contact sports in existence, it has lately come under scrutiny for potential long-term harm to its players, much like its American counterpart, the NFL.

The aftermath of sustaining repeated concussions and head trauma has begun to manifest among many of its professional athletes, prompting serious concerns about the game's future. In a revelation that has sent shockwaves through the rugby community, 43-year-old veteran Alix Popham recently shared his diagnosis of early-onset dementia.

But Popham is not an isolated case. Many former players now grapple with conditions ranging from motor neuron disease to epilepsy. Alarmingly, these athletes are uniting in a legal quest to hold rugby's governing bodies responsible for their failure to shield players from repeated brain injuries.

The lawsuit gains traction just before the commencement of the highly-anticipated Rugby World Cup in France on September 8.

Rugby's Future: Change Imminent

Rugby's modern professional era spans three decades, with its growing popularity ushering in bigger business prospects.

This success, however, has intensified calls for the sport's regulators to prioritize player welfare. Some experts, like Prof. Willie Stewart, even speculate that the forthcoming World Cup may be the sport's swansong in its current form.

He opines, "The way rugby union is played today will undergo transformation post this World Cup." This brewing storm mirrors the 2013 NFL lawsuit, which culminated in a staggering $1 billion settlement. The aftermath saw the NFL enacting more stringent rules, fines, and penalties to minimize concussion risks.

However, rugby faces a unique challenge. Its players charge onto the field without the protective helmets NFL athletes don. While the rugby establishment has issued safety guidelines, they often remain advisory rather than compulsory.

This laissez-faire approach is alarming, especially considering that an average rugby player faces a 2.67-fold increased risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders. Alix Popham, now spearheading "Head For A Change" – an initiative devoted to rugby players' protection against brain trauma – advocates for reduced matches each season and mandates a 28-day rest post-head injury.

Popham laments, “Rugby's current predicament mirrors boxing's a century ago. The information has always been there; it was just never adequately disseminated”. While Popham is on a crusade to preserve rugby's legacy by raising awareness, he fears that the sport's top brass may be more inclined to turn a blind eye, prioritizing profits over players.