Concussion is a contentious issue in sport and is a topic that has previously been covered by Sports Shorts here, here and here.  Many sports involve physical contact and, in the professional era where sportspeople are stronger, faster and more athletic than at any time before, the risk of serious injury is high.  The onus therefore lies with sports governing bodies to address the issue of head injuries and to ensure that participation is as safe as possible.

The issue was recently thrown into the spotlight with the high-profile case of George North, the Welsh rugby wing who suffered four head blows between November 2014 and March 2015 alone, leading to a period on the side-lines that lasted from 27 March until 29 August 2015.  As covered by Sports Shorts previously, World Rugby responded to the issue of concussion by implementing a tougher approach to accidental and reckless head contact through the introduction of two new categories of dangerous tackle.

While the approach taken by World Rugby is preventative in aim, the method employed effectively seeks to amend the way in which the game is policed, rather than to provide the players with any additional on-field protection.  Unlike other sports, rugby is a sport in which players do not make use of protective headgear (with the exception of lightweight scrum-caps that are principally designed to prevent against cauliflower ears) and, as such, the risk of accidental head clashes remains high, notwithstanding the introduction of new categories of tackle.

In contrast, (much like baseball, hockey and American football) cricket is a sport which sees the use of a range of equipment that is designed to protect players from injury. Batsmen at all levels of the sport wear protective gloves, pads, arm guards, boxes and helmets, while wicket-keepers and certain fielders also make use of such equipment.  Yet accidents do still happen, as is evident from the tragic death of Australian international cricket player Phillip Hughes, who passed away in 2014 after being hit on the neck by a bouncer.

Against this background, the International Cricket Council (the “ICC”) has recently announced the introduction of new regulations that make it compulsory for batsmen to wear helmets which adhere to the highest safety standards, when they elect to wear a helmet in men’s and women’s international matches.  The new regulations, which have been incorporated into the ICC Clothing and Equipment Regulations effective from 1 January 2017 (the “Regulations”), do not make it compulsory to wear a helmet when batting, but state that when a batsman does choose to wear a helmet, the helmet must comply with British Standard BS7928:2013.

The key features of a British Standard BS7928:2013-compliant helmet are that:

  • It will have “undertaken a facial contact projectile test that assesses for penetration of the ball through the faceguard and contact of the faceguard onto the face, using realistic impact speeds and conditions; and
  • It will have been tested separately against men’s and junior sized cricket balls (a five and a half ounce ball and a four and three quarter ounce ball, respectively).

In short, British Standard BS7928:2013-compliant helmets are heavily tested, have a narrower gap between the peak and the grille of the helmet and are not adjustable on either side, thereby reducing the risk of a ball entering through the opening in the helmet.

The amendment to the Regulations was introduced following a recommendation by the ICC Cricket Committee at its most recent meeting in June 2016.  The rationale behind the introduction of the amendment is player safety, as explained by the ICC’s General Manager of Cricket, Geoff Allardice:

“Our number one priority is to have all batsmen wearing the safest helmets available rather than to see players sanctioned.  It has been pleasing to see that the vast majority of international players have been wearing compliant helmets since 1 January, but some teams have requested more time to assist them in implementing the new regulation before the sanctioning process commences.”

The sanctioning process in question states that, after 1 February 2017, an official warning will be issued after each of the first two matches in which a batsman elects to wear a non-compliant helmet.  If there is a further breach of the Regulations, the player will face a one match suspension.

The aim of these sanctions is deterrent: the reality of the situation is that players are unlikely to change their choice of helmet unless there is the possibility of sanction for non-compliance.  Even allowing for the very serious injuries that can befall batsmen, the power of inertia suggests that many will continue with their present equipment absent the implementation of regulations with teeth.

The approach taken by the ICC in introducing this amendment to the Regulations (and in particular the implementation of sanctions) is admirable.  It reflects the need in the modern game to protect cricket players of all ages from the threat of concussion (or worse) and accepts that it is the role of the governing body to take an interventionist approach to protect participants’ interests.  In this respect, one wonders why the ICC did not go further and require players to wear helmets at all times.

Yet any praise of the approach taken by the ICC should not be taken as a suggestion that World Rugby has abnegated its responsibility to its players with its approach to concussion.  The sports of cricket and rugby are very different.  From a purely historical perspective, many rugby fans and professionals would anathemise the use of helmets or other protective gear.  Significant changes in sporting culture are resisted at the best of times, as can be seen from the ongoing resistance to embrace replay technology at the highest level of football.

More importantly, it has been suggested that the introduction of head-guards or helmets in rugby would add to the concussion problem, not solve it.  Dr Mike Loosemore, the doctor for the British boxing team, has encouraged amateur boxers to remove their head-guards and has argued that American football players should do likewise.  He argues that American football players have weaponised the helmet and it is routinely used as part of the ‘hit’.”  The issue of concussion stems not necessarily from the blow itself but from the brain moving sharply within the skull. This is effectively a form of neural whiplash.  Against this background, he considers that rugby players would in fact be safer to continue playing without helmets.

Whatever the solution for rugby, it is promising for the future that governing bodies of sports of fundamentally different natures are seeking to tackle the very real issue of head injuries.  The fact that different approaches are taken reflects the intricacies of each of the sports in question.  If the measures implemented by governing bodies lead to fewer injuries to participants, then any such developments must surely be welcomed.