Last Thursday was World Parkinson’s Day. Regular readers will know I have the disease, and that’s why I did not celebrate the Day so much as mark it.

From my experience since being diagnosed in 2022, I can confirm that it is progressive and increasingly debilitating. Unlike Motor Neurone Disease that took the life of Doddie Weir, Parkinson’s is not fatal in itself but it can lead to dementia and there are other complications that can cause premature death.    

I still don’t know what caused it and I suspect I never will. My grandfather had it, but the first question I was asked by the diagnosing consultant was ‘did you play rugby?’ Indeed I did and ignored several concussions to keep playing because there was no advice back then that you should take time away from playing and training to let the brain fully recover.

The ground-breaking Scottish-led research in 2022 which showed that former international rugby players were up to three times more likely to develop neurodegenerative diseases than the average male was truly scary. 

Then in October last year, the brilliant Professor Willie Stewart at Glasgow University led teams from Glasgow, Boston and Sydney universities in the first major international study of a particular kind of brain damage in rugby union players.

Examining the donated brains of 31 deceased players, professional and amateur, they were specifically looking at Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CYTE), a condition that is mainly caused by repeated blows to the head, i.e. concussions, in contact sports. They found CTE in 68% of the brains and also found that the longer you play rugby the more likely you are to get CTE. The existence of CTE in those post-mortem brains is proof positive, is it not, that playing rugby can be damaging.

Well we all knew that when we started playing, I hear you say. But we didn’t. This research is relatively recent, and the court cases that are coming the way of World Rugby, the various unions and eventually the clubs will all turn on one question – how far back were the rugby authorities aware of the dangers of, say, head-high tackles, and why has it only been in the past few years that there has been a crackdown on head shots?     

At the time the CTE research was published last October, Prof Stewart said: “Our data show risk is linked to length of rugby career, with every extra year of play increasing risk. Based on this it is imperative that the sport's regulators reduce exposure to repeated head impacts in match play and in training to reduce risk of this otherwise preventable contact sport related neurodegenerative disease.”

I cannot argue that World Rugby has done nothing about this warning, because they have repeatedly done so in recent times. It’s just that it’s all been too late for too many players and I predict again that our sport will pay a huge cost in compensation, just as American Football has faced up to its responsibilities with a BILLION dollar fund.

Those words of the wise professor have been preying on my mind in recent weeks with the announcements about the new world club championships and the new world rugby nations championships. Since these money-spinning new tournaments will inevitably involve extra games per season for the players, the risk of brain damage, and indeed all forms of injury, will be that much greater.  

World Rugby should introduce new standards restricting the number of games players have to play in a season, but in the dash for cash by unions, clubs and players who have limited careers, there is next to no chance of such a rule being promulgated.

I am aware that players organisations in football and rugby want to see such conditions as brain damage caused by repeated concussions to be classed as industrial injuries. As it happens, tomorrow the Scottish Parliament will debate Labour MSP Mark Griffins’ bill calling for an Employment Injuries Advisory Council to be set up.

This would establish a new council of experts to help design and deliver the new employment injury benefit – in other words, it wouldn’t be left to civil servants and their lackeys in the Scottish Government (and yes, that’s the right way round). According to the STUC which strongly supports the Bill: “Under the plans, this council would be tasked with advising the Scottish Government on which occupations and conditions the new injury benefit should cover.”

Workers specifically mentioned by Griffin are ‘ex-footballers facing dementia’ while the STUC wants support for ‘Players Organisations and Governing Bodies, like the Professional Footballers Association, who are campaigning for sports-related concussion and brain injuries to be classified as an industrial injury.’

So far the SNP/Greens Scottish Government has not indicated how it will react to Griffins’ bill which is just a small step in the direction of getting workers the benefits they deserve. It will be utterly disgraceful if they do not back the bill.  

Professional rugby players are workers like any others. They should be treated as such.