RFL not to blame for brain damage in players, says Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington

LEEDS Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington will never “bag” any former rugby league player bringing a legal case against the Rugby Football League over brain damage - but does not believe the governing body can be held responsible.

Bobbie Goulding, pictured in action for Leeds in 1991 against his former club Widnes, is included in a list of former players preparing a concussion lawsuit against the RFL. Picture: Chris Cole/Allsport/GettyImages.

Ex-Leeds, St Helens and Great Britain scrum-half Bobbie Goulding, 49, is one of 10 former players planning a case for negligence against the RFL after he was diagnosed recently with early-onset dementia.

He is joined by ex-Bramley, Dewsbury and Scotland prop Ryan MacDonald, former Warrington winger Jason Roach - who briefly played for Castleford Tigers at the start of Super League - and ex-Wales international Mike Edwards as part of a test group action over the RFL’s alleged failure to protect them from the risks caused by concussions and sub-concussions.

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Richard Boardman, of Rylands Legal, says he is representing 50 former players aged from their 20s to 50s, all of whom are showing symptoms associated with neurological complications.

This is alongside the 175 former rugby union players Boardman represents in a separate lawsuit, including England World Cup winner Steve Thompson.

Clearly, these are potential landmark cases with possible significant repercussions for both sports. But Hetherington insisted: “We live in a litigious society, so nothing surprises you.

“We’re learning all the time. I’m not going to bag anybody for bringing the case.

“But equally I would say that governing bodies weren’t aware of this issue. It’s not as if they were negligent; it’s not as if they knew about it and refused to deal with it. I think, once it became apparent, they have dealt with it, are dealing with it and there is on-going research.

Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington. Picture: Gary Longbottom/JPIMedia.

“It’s not a light switch. From what I can see, governing bodies are being very proactive and doing the right thing for the next generation and the current generation of players.

“There’s nothing they can do about what happened 10 or 15 years ago.”

Hetherington conceded concussion is probably the “major challenge” for sport throughout the world. Closer to home, Leeds captain Stevie Ward had to unfortunately retire in January at the age of just 27 owing to the effects of repeated concussions.

“It’s a big topic; it’s been big in the United States and it’s big over here,” added Hetherington.

Former Dewsbury Rams player Ryan MacDonald is listed among the players currently bringing a lawsuit against the RFL over brain and mental health issues associated with concussion. Picture: Bruce Rollinson/JPIMedia.

“It’s got potential to affect all sports, certainly soccer, both codes of rugby and any physical contact sport.

“[But] I think it’s fair to say that the governing bodies of all sports are very proactive about it.

“It’s a modern-society issue and nobody ever thought about it 10 or 15 years ago.

“Society is changing significantly. Habits that we have are different. It’s all part of societal change.

“I played in the era where ‘thuggery’ was a badge. The game has changed significantly and changed for the better.”

Hetherington is 67 and knows of team-mates and peers “who’ve had dementia, and who have died with dementia” but he does not see it as something which will see players discouraged from playing in the future.

“There is a certain section of society that is attracted to the contest that it [rugby league] brings,” added Hetherington, who tomorrow marks 25 years since arriving at Headingley to take over the Leeds club with Paul Caddick.

“It’s not going to get eradicated, because it’s like boxing; it will always be attractive even though there are dangers.

“Inevitably there will be changes that society brings to sport in general, but I still think there will always be an appetite for rugby, boxing, American Football…”

Boardman said: “The vast majority of former players we represent love the game and don’t want to see it harmed in any way. They just want to make it safer so current and future generations don’t end up like them.

“Younger players such as Stevie Ward, Rob Burrow and Sam Burgess have spoken publicly about their own brain damage, so these issues aren’t restricted to older generations.

“This is why we’re asking the RFL to make a number of immediate, relatively low-cost changes to save the sport, such as limiting contact in training and extending the return to play [following a concussion].”

In response, an RFL statement read: “The RFL takes player safety and welfare extremely seriously, and has been saddened to hear about some of the former players’ difficulties. Rugby League is a contact sport and while there is an element of risk to playing any sport, player welfare is always of paramount importance.

“As a result of scientific knowledge, the sport of Rugby League continues to improve and develop its approach to concussion, head injury assessment, education, management and prevention across the whole game.

“We will continue to use medical evidence and research to reinforce and enhance our approach.”