Dan Scarbrough has had a lot of conversations such as this one since his diagnosis came through, with his wife, with his parents, with his kids, with his bosses at Bradford grammar school, where he is the master in charge of rugby. They don’t get any easier. “I’m pretty nervous,” he says at the start of ours. “I feel torn, really, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed out of the press until now.”
Scarbrough, 43, played twice for England. He is one of a group of retired rugby union players who are bringing legal action against the sport’s governing authorities because they have been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, and, in his case, early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy. All caused, he and his doctors believe, by the blows to the head he sustained during his 15-year career in professional rugby.
The firm behind the lawsuit, Rylands Law, is now representing 150 current and former players, men and women, and nine test cases are under way. Five of those nine went public last December; Scarbrough felt so conflicted about “coming out like this” that he has waited until now. It wasn’t the diagnosis with which he struggled. He had known for a long time that something wasn’t right, that his memory wasn’t working the way it should. He had already been to his local doctor to try to find out what was going on, and the initial reason he got involved in the suit was because it gave him access to specialist help he needed. “Now I’ve got a reason for what’s going on, I can accept it and try to move on,” he says.
The hard part is figuring out what it all means, for his children, for the children he teaches, and for the game he wants them to love the way he does.
The morning before we spoke, Scarbrough says, he had been discussing it with his 11-year-old son. He plays rugby too, and is the same age as some of the kids Scarbrough teaches at BGS. “He understands on a basic level,” he says. “I said to him: ‘I’ve got a brain injury from playing professional rugby, and people might ask you about it, your friends might ask you about it, so we need to have a chat about how you want to respond.’ And he said: ‘Well he’s my dad and I know he’s got a brain injury from rugby but I haven’t noticed it, he’s just my dad, and he’s a bit more forgetful.’ But when we started getting into it deeper, I was thinking: ‘How far do I go? Do I tell him how I feel about him playing the game?’ Because he’s about that age where they begin to take more notice of what’s going on, and where they might begin to question it a little bit.”
In his head this talk prefigures the ones he might have with the kids at his school and all of a sudden he switches – he’s not relating the discussions he has had but rehearsing the ones he hasn’t. “‘Why is Mr Scarbrough the way he is? Is rugby really the right thing for me?’”
There are versions of this conversation going on all across the country, and around the world, between mums and dads, parents and teachers, players, coaches, and journalists, academics, administrators and MPs. Is the game safe for adults? Is it safe for children?
“I know right now it looks like ‘rugby equals brain damage’.” He doesn’t say it but he knows, too, that by joining this lawsuit he is only going to make more people think that is true, which is why he is torn. “But the big thing I want to get across is that I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe there are massive benefits to playing rugby, benefits I’ve had myself. This game shaped my life. It gave me focus, and kept me on the straight and narrow. I’d rather my son played it over and over again every weekend than sit at home in front of a PlayStation. I believe rugby is safer now than it’s ever been. I’m not saying it’s watertight, I’m not saying it’s perfect, but the changes that have come in at school level, at senior level, at professional level, have made the game much safer across the board.”
Scarbrough has seen those changes during his own time in the game. He started playing when he was about the same age his son is now. Back then “there were no restrictions on how many minutes you could play in a day” so he played three games a weekend, and another in midweek. “We didn’t even have to wear gum shields. If you got injured the coach would bring the magic sponge out, in a bucket full of blood and mud, and you had a good wipe down then you stood up, the parents cheered, and you carried on, almost like a badge of honour.”
It was a different world. “These days at school we have a full medical team on site, often with an ambulance on Saturdays, just in case. If anyone gets a knock on the head they are instantly removed from the field, no questions asked, in line with the RFU ‘headcase’ guidelines. Even if you haven’t had a head knock but you’re showing any symptoms, you come off, and if there’s any doubt about whether you have a concussion we follow the guidelines and take the required action.” Listening to him, I imagine he is a good teacher, passionate, compassionate, committed and full of good ideas.
He hates the idea of banning contact altogether. “There’s loads more we can do to make the game even safer. At BGS, and probably in most schools these days, you’d be surprised how little contact training children actually do. It’s not uncommon to only do around 10 minutes of contact training a week, sometimes less, and the focus is on technique and body control and limiting the number of impacts.”
Even then “contact might not be for everybody”, Scarbrough says, adding: “So we need to work in different tiers, some might play touch rugby, some might play contact, some play a version in the middle ground between them. That way kids can move on when they’re ready but we get them involved, and comfortable, and we keep them in the game.”
He believes the Covid restrictions, which have meant coaches have had to put more emphasis on practising skills, might be an opportunity to reset the culture of the game and “help us get back to a game of running into space, rather than running into people”. He hopes law changes and adaptations will have a similar effect on the culture of the professional game.
“It’s about getting the right message to the kids: go out and enjoy it, keep safe, take care of your body and if you have any concerns about your head, stop and tell your coach. And the message I want to give the parents is: I think the grassroots game has never been safer. The issues some professional players are facing, they played in a certain era and the protection wasn’t there when it should have been.” (This is his view. It is not everyone’s view; there are, for instance, some amateur players among the group represented by Rylands.)
Contacted by the Guardian about Scarbrough’s story, the Rugby Football Union said: “We are deeply saddened to hear the brave personal accounts from former players. Rugby is a contact sport and while there is an element of risk to playing any sport, rugby takes player welfare extremely seriously and it continues to be our number one priority. As a result of scientific knowledge improving, rugby has developed its approach to concussion surveillance, education, management and prevention across the whole game. We have implemented coach, referee and player education and best practice protocols across the game and rugby’s approach to head injury assessments and concussion protocols has been recognised and led to many other team sports adopting our guidance. We will continue to use medical evidence and research to keep evolving our approach.”
Scarbrough played through the 2000s for Leeds, Saracens and Racing 92. He was a wing and a full-back, so the blows to his head were not as frequent as they were for some of his teammates up front but they were still big and, more important, sound badly managed. “At times you’d get a head knock and while the game continued a physio might run on and ask: ‘Are you OK?’ and you’d say: ‘Yup, leave me alone,’ because you don’t want to let the team down – the culture around injuries was different then, you felt like it was your duty to play on.”
He half-remembers the big ones, such as the time his head smacked into a teammate’s knee. “I was absolutely out cold, you could have drawn a chalk line around me, I vaguely remember coming around in the changing room some time later, and I genuinely didn’t know what planet I was on. It wasn’t a case of a little bit of confusion, I was in floods of tears, had no idea, no understanding of what the world was about, never mind who I was. I can’t remember to this day whether I trained on the following Monday, or whether I played the following week, I just don’t know.”
It got so bad at times each little hit would set off problems. “Just an innocuous touch on the chin and I’d lose part of my vision, like I’d have tunnel vision. I remember a spell of three or four months in one season where it was a regular occurrence, I’d have around 20 minutes where I couldn’t see properly but I’d carry on and eventually it would clear. Looking back, it was clearly brain damage.”
Which is why he decided to join this suit, despite his worries about what it might mean for the sport. “We didn’t consider that we would end up with brain damage and if other people did know, if they were hiding things and sweeping them under the carpet, then that’s clearly wrong. If I am in a situation where 10 years from now things have deteriorated rapidly, who looks after me? And who looks after my family? Who’s left to pick up the pieces? Nobody knows where this illness will go. I’m hoping we can slow progression, I’m taking steps to slow it but, if suddenly there is a steep deterioration, who picks up the pieces? I don’t think the NHS can deal with it these days, can they? So somebody has to put their hand up and take responsibility.
“But I think what’s happening at school level is a completely different kettle of fish to the professional game. And I still think this is a great game, there’s nothing like it, and it would be an absolute travesty if we lost what makes it so special. So let’s keep going, let’s work together to make the positive changes at all levels that will make it as safe as we possibly can.”
Andy Bull was named last week as sports feature writer of the year at the Sports Journalism Awards and, with Michael Aylwin, received a silver award in the scoop of the year category for his reporting on rugby and dementia