Rugby players and supporters are aware that concussion has been at the forefront of many recent safety discussions within the world of rugby. In the last year, many rugby bodies have undergone amendments to their protocols to not only line up with World Rugby, but commiserate to the education and medical advances in understanding concussion worldwide. Politicians are involved. Scientists. Foundations exist to perform studies and gather data. Many – though not all – players, officials, and coaches are cooperating better than ever. Journalists have entered the conversation. I myself have researched and written one piece with the help from players such as Jamie Cudmore, himself keen to educate. I now offer the following in the wake of the launch of a new foundation created by Cudmore and spearheaded by his wife Jennifer – the Rugby Safety Network (RSN):
In the summer of 2015 Jamie Cudmore, lock for Rugby Canada since 2002 and highly respected (and slightly feared) international player for more than a decade, suffered the troublesome after-effects of a series of concussions. He had a self-professed scary few months enduring a wide range of headaches, insomnia, restlessness, fatigue and bouts of anger and depression. Just prior to World Cup, Cudmore emerged from the experience vocal about the fear and disruption he’d experienced only months earlier. He acknowledged that it affected every aspect of his life – from his training to personal relationships and daily routines. It bothered him that it was something his family had to experience. And it bothered his wife Jennifer too; it seemed that something, some integral level of support, was missing during that period.
Concussion is often rehabbed the way a pulled muscle is rehabbed; players are put through various levels of protocols in order to return to play safely. In the interim, there is a vast array of ‘support’ mechanisms put in place by the various teams and rugby bodies. Some of these bodies treat all the symptoms associated with post-concussion-syndrome while others do not. Support for the physical body is not quite the same thing as support for the mental effects of concussion. Healing the body is not always the same as healing the mind after a knock to the head. And sometimes, the people around the players feel the gap in the supports more strongly than the players themselves.
Much of the rugby world will remember when Mike Brown, star fullback in England, went down unconscious after a tackle last June. At the time, it was really serious. But Mike has said that his post-concussion support was a positive experience, and he felt supported by the Harlequins and by the RFU as well. He was given time. There was patience. A good scenario resulted. That's the way it should be. Players put themselves on the line for their teams and country – team and country should certainly go to bat for the player in return.
The Cudmores however, did not feel as supported following Jamie’s multiple concussions. Jennifer Cudmore was frustrated. She felt there should be more effective resources in place for Jamie and others. She felt that with the wealth of his team and league that he should have had a lot more follow-up. Yet he didn’t. In fact, he didn’t get enough time to properly rehab. He wasn't the only one. The Cudmores were afraid. And that fear raised a question for them about the overall support and safety of rugby players worldwide.
While Mike Brown and Jamie Cudmore are highly respected star players for both club and country, their stories are vastly different. And yet they are both well-paid players. The concern is for players of lesser status, from clubs that lack the riches of resources. And while World Rugby is working to change this so that everyone is on the same page regarding concussion protocols, there are still gaps; While the will is there for World Rugby to work toward change, it’s proving to be a lengthy process. In the meantime, there are players who will not have the attention that their concussion symptoms require, or the after-care that they'll need. It’s one thing to put attention to the physical being of the player; attention has to be paid to the rest of him or her as well.
The Rugby Safety Network, developed by Jamie and Jennifer Cudmore, by player for players, means to bridge that gap.
Their foundation aims to support and educate players who have suffered from concussion as well as to fully study concussion in order to find ways to better protect players. It is being put in place for the very reason that concussion, its symptoms and recovery, are so vastly different player to player, knock to knock. The statistics they gathered to lay out the plan are staggering:
- More than 300,000 sport-related concussions occur annually in the EU alone.
- Many current rugby players frequently suffer from post-concussion symptoms such as headache, dizziness, balance or memory issues, ringing ears, sensitivity to light, and other symptoms often associated with concussion, without actually being diagnosed with concussion.
- One survey showed 46% of all university rugby players had experienced concussion in a single season.
- Despite focus on return to play protocols being adhered to, team doctors often feel increased pressure to return the player to training sooner than they’d wish.
- If a player returns too soon to play he or she may only be at 80% capacity, unhealthy for them and team alike.
- Players under 18 should at no time be treated with the same protocols as adult players but often are.
With so many dramatic statistics being bandied about and debated, and with some well-respected doctors frustrated that there does appear to be a lack of stricter guidelines worldwide, there appeared a gap that the Cudmores looked to fill, first and foremost for the safety of players.
RSN is a non-profit foundation established to bring awareness to the severity of concussions, and “to provide financial support to players suffering from consequences of continuous concussions.” It means to provide education, legal advice and financial assistance – and overall protection for players. Their vision statement states simply what they hope to achieve:
Preserving the Past & Protecting the Future.
The other component is as watch-dog. There exists no current body outside of World Rugby who will act on behalf of the player to ensure that protocols and guidelines are adhered to across the board. RSN aims to provide the resources so that player welfare is at the fore, regardless of pressure from within organizations and various camps for players to return to play before they are truly ready to do so.
Part of what makes RSN ideal is that it’s administered by players for players; to be player-funded and to exist outside of any other club or international level insurance arrangements. By being player funded, rugby players worldwide can ensure that their best interests are always at heart. They will be able to turn to RSN in time of need or on the off-chance of dispute. They will know that someone out there has their back. It’s a level of protection that will benefit many and should calm the concerns of players and their families who don’t currently feel confidence that their needs will be met.
The Rugby Safety Network’s education will center around an outreach program called “A-Head of the Game.” This will provide concussion management, research, and development tools, using many of the advances that World Rugby spearheaded in 2015, a pivotal year for rugby education.
World Rugby does not officially endorse RSN, but it is considered a partner in advancing education and awareness, and it will support RSN’s endeavours. In return, RSN will work with World Rugby to share data and promote the advances made in education. It is noted in the foundation plan that in 2015, 15,000 medics, players, coaches and general public completed World Rugby’s online concussion education modules. This is a highly positive number, one the RSN supports. Going forward their aim is to encourage the numbers to grow. In this respect, World Rugby and RSN are in concert – the common goal is to improve player welfare. The gap is in the implementation and after-care.
It cannot be emphasized enough that the Rugby Safety Network is one of a kind. It simply has never existed in any capacity before now. With rugby growing across the world and players getting faster, bigger and more competitive, now is the time to put such measures in place to support them and advance education.
As Jamie Cudmore nears the end of an incredible career, he’s feeling very fortunate to have made his mark in rugby, to have benefitted greatly from it, and to have had rugby open other doors for he and his family. Using their combined organizational and business acumen, paired with a deep caring for their rugby community, Jamie and Jennifer aim to turn that care and thoughtfulness into a successful foundation that will help countless players in coming years.
I’ll be reporting back on the impact RSN is having in the coming months. We at Rugby United are going to work with RSN to help spread the word about events and resources when they become available. The very existence of the Rugby Safety Network is something I believe in strongly. I’ll be following it closely.
More information on the foundation and its launch will follow shortly.
Preserving the Past & Protecting the Future.
Karen Gasbarino-Knutt, @RugbyCAN_ #RugbyUnited