The 2024 Six Nations Championship kicked off this weekend amid the ongoing lawsuit launched by ex-players against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union, and the Welsh Rugby Union. One of the staunchest advocates of the dangers of concussion continues to voice his support for players while calling out those at the top who ignored the problem for far too long.
For over a decade, Sam Peters has worked to highlight player welfare risks and the slow uptake of action by rugby’s governing bodies.
It started when he saw what was happening in the US with the NFL concussion lawsuit and was reading the scary results of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) studies; it was hard not to fear something similar would follow in rugby.
Peters’ 2023 book, Concussed: Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth, tells the story of his fight to educate the rugby world on the short and long-term dangers of concussion.
Peters’ campaign beginnings
Before the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour in Australia, Australian George Smith hadn’t made an international appearance in nearly four years. Sam Peters was in the stands on the night of the third test. A night that changed Peters’ view of rugby – as a fan and journalist – forever.
Smith and Richard Hubbard clashed heads. Smith was slow to get up and clearly disoriented. Peters’ first thoughts? “Not another one and also I knew he was going to go back on.”
Smith underwent a Pitchside Suspected Concussion Assessment and was back on the field in around five minutes.
“That was a big moment for me, because I became convinced that something needed to be done about it.”
Luckily, public opinion on the link between repeated head injuries and long-term health risks has changed since Peters first started the Mail on Sunday Concussion Campaign.
Since that evening in 2013, Peters believes players today are better educated on the dangers of repeated brain injuries.
However, Peters maintained, “I suspect there’s still a lot of nonsense being fed to [players]. I think this idea that those of us who believe concussion should be taken more seriously are kind of scaremongers [and] that still lingers.”
While education and awareness on concussions has increased, dissonance within the sport of who, if anyone, is at fault for long-term player health remains.
Building back trust
Peters sees a conflict of interest in the funding of rugby injury research by rugby’s governing bodies.
“A lot of this research into head injuries has been funded by the sports governing bodies. So that to me is already a kind of red flag for concern.”
He emphasised that most researchers are working in good faith. They are not the problem. The problem revolves around the people most concerned with damage control paying for it and disseminating findings.
A player leaving the pitch for a concussion assessment
“It’s how that information or that research is presented, and I think it often gets distorted.
“Often what’s written in the press releases doesn’t marry up with what the actual research is or has found.”
Neurologist Paul McCrory was seen as a leading expert on traumatic brain injuries in sports. Peters holds a lot of ire towards McCrory for downplaying the risks of repeated brain injuries and American CTE research findings.
“Dr. Paul McCrory in Australia, was highly influential in this narrative. Highly influential in underplaying the risks, and highly influential in misrepresenting and distorting other sound, peer-reviewed research.
“McCrory and his supporters, to me, have done significant harm to participants in the sport who have been given poor information.”
The Concussed author is gravely concerned about the time and effort it will take to heal the damage that was done by this narrative.
Ex-professional Andrew Coombs recently revealed his dementia diagnosis at the age of 39
What next for professional and grassroots rugby?
Not everyone will agree with Peters’ approach, something he is admittedly okay with. He’s spent most of his professional career drawing attention to a topic he was repeatedly told was a non-issue. He’s also not afraid to call people out on X (formerly Twitter) — Brian Moore being the target of his most recent line of questioning.
Peters questions the status quo and that will always draw push-back and criticism, especially among those with the most to lose from changes.
— Sam Peters (@PlantedSam) February 2, 2024
But there’s no disputing his passion towards player welfare or his influence making concussion a common topic of discussion in the sport.
Peters’ aim is not to scare people away from rugby. He loves the sport and is under no illusion that most professionals will continue playing even when knowing the risks. His focus is on ensuring that athletes, and parents, have the information to make that choice.
Changes in concussion protocols and public awareness should be celebrated. However, Peters would “like to see a lot more done, a lot more honesty. And then people can make a much better choice decision about whether they choose to play or not.”
What next for rugby amid safety concerns and a lawsuit? For Peters that means “continued awareness and informed choice honestly around the long-term risks” of head injuries. These are key to rebuilding trust in rugby’s governing bodies and sustaining the sport a long way into the future.
Find the Sports Gazette’s review of Concussed: Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth here.