England stars blocked RFU concussion gene-testing plan for all professional players due to ‘Big Brother’ privacy fears.

  • RFU proposed a ground-breaking research programme two years ago into a reported link between a specific gene and the incidence of concussion
  • England stars rejected the move to introduce genetic testing
  • Players were concerned it would lead to an invasion of privacy
  • A delegation from RFU’s medical department had meet with club representatives urging them to participate in the study

England’s top rugby stars have blocked a move to introduce genetic testing of all professional players over fears of a Big Brother-style invasion of privacy.

The Mail on Sunday have learned that senior figures from within the RFU proposed a ground-breaking research programme two years ago into a reported link between a specific gene and the incidence of concussion.

A high-level delegation from the RFU’s medical department – including head of medicine Dr Simon Kemp – presented to club representatives at the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA), urging them to consider participating in the study.

England centre Brad Barritt (right) is bloodied during the match with Australia on Saturday.

It came following research carried out in the United States by world-leading head injury expert Barry Jordan which reported a link between the APOE4 gene and concussion in a sample of boxers and American footballers.

‘It’s fair to say the proposal was rejected out of hand,’ said one RPA insider who was present at the meeting.

‘There had been no precedent for this. We were effectively being asked to be guinea pigs in a trial.

‘The players had serious reservations about giving up sensitive personal information which could have been used against them in contract negotiations or by unscrupulous insurance companies.

Barritt (right) is led off the Twickenham pitch by physiotherapist Phil Pask (left) on Saturday.

‘We were promised the study would be anonymous but no one bought that. It just felt wrong on a number of levels.

‘What if a club said to an 18-year-old academy player, “sorry son, you’ve got a certain genetic make-up so we’re not going to employ you”?’

Concussion has become a huge concern for all contact sports since evidence emerged in the US linking repeated head traumas suffered by NFL stars with the neurodegenerative disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). It is now the most common injury suffered by professional rugby players.

Rugby’s authorities have taken significant strides to improve protocols over the past year. A mandatory education programme is currently being rolled out to all Aviva Premiership clubs – with players, coaches and medics risking fines or even bans if they fail to complete an online module by December 12 – while plans announced last week by World Rugby will see all players involved in next year’s World Cup undergo baseline testing and also undertake an education programme.

England and Leicester second row Geoff Parling (right) has had numerous concussions this year.

Last week, four Ireland players were removed from the field in their Test against Australia to undergo the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) – formerly known as the Pitch Side Concussion Assessment (PSCA) – while three Gloucester players went off in the first 40 minutes of their Premiership defeat by Newcastle all suffering concussion.

Billy Vunipola missed England’s clash with Australia on Saturday after suffering concussion in Saracens’ clash with Northampton, while Wales wing George North was also concussed against New Zealand. England’s Kyle Eastmond and Courtney Lawes have both suffered significant head injuries during the course of the autumn Tests.

But while clear progress has been made, the revelation that genetic testing has been proposed demonstrates how seriously the sport’s governing bodies are taking the issue.

‘Genetic testing is a theme that is running through sports medicine as a whole at the moment,’ said concussion expert and advisor to World Rugby, Dr John Patricios.

George North of Wales and Northampton (left) suffered a concussion against New Zealand last week.

‘We know that certain people with certain genetic profiles are more pre-disposed to tendon injuries and it is an area that is being looked at for concussion. The APOE4 gene has been identified with Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases. There is a suggestion it may apply to concussion as well, although it is not clear cut.’

While Dr Patricios is cautious, he does not believe genetic testing is inherently wrong.

‘Firstly we can give the individual a choice,’ he said. ‘Maybe they don’t want to take part in contact or collision sports. Secondly they may want to strengthen certain areas of their body to mitigate against specific types of injuries they know they are genetically predisposed to.

‘We may in future be able to identify a gene where we say, “right, if you have this genetic profile you are more likely to be concussed than the player next to you, what can we do about it”?’

England and Leicester No 8 Billy Vunipola suffered from concussion last week.

The Mail on Sunday have also learned this week that jockeys are already being subjected to genetic profiling, while the NFL is also seriously considering introducing similar testing programmes.

The seemingly relentless move towards more genetic profiling of athletes will inevitably have widespread legal ramifications for all sports.

‘It all leads back to a privacy issue where you could have governing bodies or anti-doping agencies holding sensitive personal information which is obviously vulnerable to attack,’ said Tom Barnard of Thomas Eggar sports lawyers.

‘Insurance-wise there could be duties on the club and duties on the player to divulge any results. Players are increasingly caught between a rock and a hard place.’

With the NFL already ordered to pay out £490million to former players suffering early on-set dementias and associated brain illnesses, governing bodies of all sports are increasingly sensitive to the potential legal ramifications if it is shown they have failed in their duty of care to their participants.

Article by Sam Peters For Mail On Sunday
Originally published November 30th, 2014.