Rugby and soccer players also have brain injuries

The evidence of damage done to the brains of American football players continues to pile up. So far, not much attention has been focused on the effects of playing on rugby and soccer players. In soccer, it is heading the ball that can cause serious jarring of the brain. In rugby, players are forbidden from certain types of tackles that use or target the head. They are also not as heavily padded and helmeted as in American football and this was thought to discourage dangerous tackles using the head as a battering ram. But they can still be subjected to jarring and bone-crushing tackles as can be seen in this video.

A lawsuit by former international rugby players argues that they suffered brain damage because of the game.

Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson and seven other former players claim the sport has left them with permanent brain damage – and are in the process of starting a claim against the game’s authorities for negligence.

Every member of the group has recently been diagnosed with the early signs of dementia, and they say repeated blows to the head are to blame.

Thompson, 42, played in every England match when they won the 2003 World Cup, but says: “I can’t remember any of those games. It’s frightening.”

All eight players to have come forward so far have been diagnosed by neurologists at King’s College, London, with early onset dementia and probable Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

While the spectators see just the jarring collisions in competitive games that they think cause the injuries, there are many, many more such collisions that occur in practices and it is the cumulative effect of all these mini-concussions that can cause problems.

Thompson is convinced constant head knocks during matches and training are to blame.

“When we first started going full-time in the mid-1990s, training sessions could quickly turn into full contact,” he said.

“There was one session when the scrummaging hadn’t gone quite right and they made us do a hundred live scrums. When it comes to it, we were like a bit of meat, really.

“The whole point of us doing this is to look after the young players coming through. I don’t want rugby to stop. It’s been able to give us so much, but we just want to make it safer. It can finish so quickly, and suddenly you’ve got your whole life in front of you.”

In soccer, eliminating heading of the ball may solve the problem in their sport. It is not clear what can be done in football and rugby to eliminate these concussive blows without changing the support in significant ways. I suspect that many fans of rugby will be like their counterparts in American football and oppose any changes that reduce the number and intensity of these bone-jarring and brain-damaging tackles because they actually like seeing them. I used to enjoy watching rugby and football but ever since learning about the danger of CTE, I can no longer stomach doing so. Every time I see a hard tackle, my mind thinks of the player’s brain getting shaken around in their skull. It is not a pleasant image. I could not even watch more than a bit of the above video clip.

You cannot stop adults from engaging in self-destructive behavior. But I think it is high time that there be no sports leagues in these sports for those under (say) 21 years of age when their brains are still in the formative stages of development. Schools and colleges should also eliminate these sports entirely. Those institutions should be in the business of educating young people, not damaging their brains.


  1. anat says

    My personal favored solution is to end all professional sports. There is no way to stop people from injuring themselves for fun, but at least we can stop the situation where people depend on injuring themselves for their livelihoods while providing entertainment. I arrived at this view following a talk about genetics and sports, when I learned that the way track and field teams for major events train is by starting with a large number of participants and training them until most are too injured to continue.

  2. says

    In soccer, eliminating heading of the ball may solve the problem in their sport.

    The US Soccer deserves credit for being the first nation (in 2015) to ban heading for children 10 and under. Other countries complained, “it will put kids at a skill disadvantage!” But if FIFA bars all heading for kids, it’s a non-issue. In February 2020, the UK banned heading for under 11s during training, but not during games. It’s a start, but not enough.

    It’s similar to Hockey Canada dragging its heels on the body checking ban. Hockey Canada resisted the change and was the last to enact the “under 13” ban that other countries already had. Now if they would only ban fighting. In 2017, the Canadian Football League (similar game to the NFL) banned full contact practices during the season, though pre-season is full contact.

    I used to enjoy watching rugby and football but ever since learning about the danger of CTE, I can no longer stomach doing so.

    It wasn’t the NFL or college concussions that permanently put me off North American football. It was news about a 2012 pop warner game (10-12 years old) where five children had concussions. Despite the league’s “mercy kill” rule (a 28 point lead after halftime), no one stopped the game -- not the referees, not the coaches, not the parents. And it’s not an isolated case of people putting “the game” ahead of children’s health.

  3. says

    “Come and see the violence inherent in the system!” -- Dennis

    I have never been a fan of sportsball in any of its permutations, partly due to the violence and partly due to the “us vs. them” mentality of it. For many years I was a competitive distance runner, and one of the aspects I liked (other than not being pummeled) was that it did not involve an object that everyone obsessed over. Certainly not a major spectator sport but if you did watch a race, you were concentrating solely on the participants without any technology getting in the way (unlike, say, bicycling or motorcar racing). And besides, the rules are insanely simple and there are no judges.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    jimf @3:

    one of the aspects I liked (other than not being pummeled) was that it did not involve an object that everyone obsessed over.

    Yeah, I guess you could argue that the finish line isn’t an object.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Intransitive @2:

    But if FIFA bars all heading for kids, it’s a non-issue.

    No, it is an issue. If they don’t learn proper heading technique (using the forehead -- not an insignificant skill to learn, since kids tend to use the tops of their heads) that just makes things worse when they reach the age for which heading is allowed.

    One solution would be banning heading in matches, but requiring heading training, for example using a tennis ball or a much lighter soccer ball.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    anat @1:

    at least we can stop the situation where people depend on injuring themselves for their livelihoods while providing entertainment

    So you favour banning professional ballet dancing as well?

  7. billseymour says

    One reason I like baseball is that it’s not nearly as mean-spirited as other team sports.  Yes, players get injured; but it’s almost always by chance, almost never the intent of the opposing player.

    In today’s game, there are really only three exceptions:

    -- A pitcher will sometimes hit a batter with the ball.  This is usually, but not always, a mistake; and a batter who gets hit by a pitch is almost always able to continue playing.

    -- A runner taking second base will sometimes try to take out a defender in an attempt to break up a double play.  This almost never results in serious injury.

    -- A relatively new rule is that, when there’s a play at the plate, the catcher may not block home plate.  If the catcher fails to give the runner a path to the plate, the catcher is fair game.  (Catchers wear a good deal of body protection, but runners have a good deal of momentum.)

    Another reason I like baseball is that it’s as close as we in the West have come to patience. 😎

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    When I look through the literature, it doesn’t seem that the link between heading in soccer and cognitive impairment is as firmly established as some science communicators think it is.

    Research on the effects of soccer heading on brain structure and function has produced mixed results (3). A small number of studies have investigated the impact of heading on brain structure by using neuroimaging techniques. While some of these studies have found evidence of abnormalities (4–6), others have failed to show any evidence of brain damage in soccer players (7–9). Also, another line of research has specifically investigated biochemical markers of brain injury and their relationship with head impacts in soccer players. However, while some authors have demonstrated associations between heading and biochemical signs of brain damage (10–15), others have not corroborated these findings (16, 17).

    Of course, until the science is well established, the worst case scenario should be taken seriously.

  9. KG says

    So, it turns out repeated blows to the head aren’t good for you. Who could have guessed?

    So you favour banning professional ballet dancing as well? -- Rob Grigjanis@6

    Well, there’s certainly an argument for it. People (girls almost entirely) get into it very young -- no girl who doesn’t devote most of her childhood to it can hope to succeed professionally -- and of course most of them end up with nothing but injuries for all that effort.

  10. says

    Rob G @4:

    Sure it’s an object, and you could even argue that it’s the ultimate focus of the contest, but that’s not what I’m arguing. Spectators aren’t staring at it while the runners are mid-race. People are watching the runners, not the finish line. No one stares at the tape 6000 meters into a 10000 meter race, but people always have their “eyes on the ball”. Just watch the camera on any televised ball-sport. It will always leave the athlete and follow the ball. I have watched many track and field contests, and never once have I see the camera cut away to show the finish line mid-race. Same for a road race. The camera stays with the runners. You might get the occasional crowd shot, but that’s about it.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    jimf @12:

    people always have their “eyes on the ball”

    I knew a cat who did that, but most people who follow the game are watching what’s going on around the ball, and good camera work will include a large area around it, where players are constantly repositioning, and situations developing.

  12. sonofrojblake says

    This does remind me that in the late 70s at school we would refer to a certain type of boy as a “head the ball”. Some boys were simply more inclined to, y’know… head the ball. Sometimes they were good at the rest of the game. Never at maths, though. Which leads to the question : if you’re a Head-the-ball in the first place, what is the evidence your brain was “normal” to start with?

  13. sonofrojblake says

    “Why not require lightweight shock-absorbing helmets for soccer players?”

    Because that will make it worse, not better.

    The kind of brain injuries you get in boxing are almost unheard of in bare-knuckle fighting, because without protective gloves you can’t hit as hard, certainly not to the head. There’s a reason that gridiron hand-egg with its extensive padding and big helmets has a bigger problem with this than rugby.

  14. jrkrideau says

    @ 15 sonofrojblake
    Because that will make it worse, not better.

    My thought exactly. There is an entire area of psychology, Risk Homeostasis, devoted to this.

  15. Holms says

    #6 Rob
    Run an image search with the terms ‘ballet’ and ‘feet’.

    #7 billseymour
    Another reason I like baseball is that it’s as close as we in the West have come to patience.

    I take it you’ve never watched cricket?

    #13 Rob
    Did John Morales die, and did you become a medium so that you could channel him?

    #15 sonof
    This is also the exact reason why soccer, rugby, AFL etc. have fewer injuries than American football. The padding is seen as a green light to do heavier tackles, because ‘the padding will protect us’.

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    Holms @18:

    Run an image search with the terms ‘ballet’ and ‘feet’.

    Why would I do that? I mentioned ballet precisely because of the toll it takes on the human body.

  17. file thirteen says

    Brain injuries has long been a skeleton In the closet of rugby, but there are some attempts now being made to address the issue. In the last rugby championship game this year (a Southern Hemisphere competition now involving New Zealand, Australia and Argentina), a game between Australia and Argentina, there were two yellow cards and a red card handed out, all for contact being made to the head of the opponent. There was still plenty of outrage about these, but many people are finally coming to grips with the idea that contact with the head can no longer be accepted as part of the game (it never could, but now we know).

    Mano, I think the last time you posted on American football head injuries I mentioned the following link for those who thought rugby had been spared from this plight:

    It makes for sobering reading.

    @Pierce #11

    Why not require lightweight shock-absorbing helmets for soccer players?

    Because any helmet that absorbs the shock will head the ball with less force, and therefore less effectively, than one that doesn’t. I don’t know what else can be done other than to disallow heading, but this will only happen after a lot of tantrums and no few lawsuits.

  18. billseymour says

    Holms @18:

    I take it you’ve never watched cricket?

    Point taken.  What I know about cricket is pretty much limited to what Mano posts on this blog.

    BTW, I enjoy reading those cricket posts quite a bit…maybe because I’m a geek who likes words. 😎

    I did watch curling once.

  19. anat says

    To add to my previous point, regarding banning all professional forms of entertainment that tend to seriously injure participants: This applies especially to activities where serious participation starts at young ages. For instance women’s gymnastics as currently practiced is child abuse (though there is a new trend towards raising participation ages, so that’s an improvement).

  20. says

    RobG @ 13: “most people who follow the game are watching what’s going on around the ball”

    Thanks for providing support for my initial observation. No one focuses on the finish line mid-race.

  21. Marja Erwin says

    In soccer, helmets may help because while playerrs currently use their heads to try to head the ball, they don’t use their heads to ram other players.

    I’d suggest something like a bicycle helmet which woulds make it harder to head the ball, and protect against accidents.

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