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Children’s Sport And The Risk of Brain Injury: Who is Responsible?

A new study has revealed the possible long-term effects of suffering a head injury at a young age.  But who is responsible for children when they’re playing sports and how can brain injuries be avoided?

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The study, carried out by Oxford University, revealed that even a mild concussion could raise the odds of poor school grades and mental illness, with young sufferers of head injuries 72 per cent more likely to die by the age of 40.

The study focused on traumatic brain injuries (TBI), which may be caused by a single blow to the head and which, at the time, may be evident from only minor symptoms. The findings of the study were as follows:

In a population of 1,143,470 youngsters born between 1973 and 1985, the new study identified 104,290 Swedes who were diagnosed and treated in a hospital for traumatic brain injury before the age of 25. While the severity of those injuries varied, 77.4 per cent were diagnosed as mild TBI – generally known as concussion.

Peter McCabe, chief executive of brain injury charity Headway, said: “This research is a clear warning signal that the physical and psychosocial implications of brain injury can last a lifetime. 

“It is vital that all relevant professionals, including GPs, teachers and social workers, have a greater understanding of TBI and its effects in order to identify and support people at the earliest possible stage and lessen any long-term impact.”


The findings of the Oxford University study could lead to changes to how playgrounds are designed, as well as a tightening in rules for children’s sport.

But what are the responsibilities of schools and sports bodies when it comes to children in sport?

In my previous blog, Duty of Care and Negligence in Sports, I noted that each participant in a lawful sporting contest owes every other participant in that contest a duty of care. That duty is to exercise all care that is objectively reasonable in the prevailing circumstances in order to avoid injury to such co-participants.

The “prevailing circumstances” must include the object of the sport, the demand made upon the contestants, the inherent dangers, its rules, conventions and customs and the standards, skills and judgments reasonably to be expected of the participants.

The responsible body should take action to ensure that risk and therefore injury is minimised.

Sports organisations have both a legal and moral duty of care when it comes to young and vulnerable people. A similar obligation is required of coaches and referees. This involves a responsibility to protect their safety and wellbeing. When children fall under this care, the staff or coach from the organisation must act in loco parentis, requiring them, as the adult, to act as “a reasonable parent”.

Further to this, the sports body would be responsible for making sure that any staff, coaches or trainers are qualified and that safety is managed throughout all activities.

A much greater duty of care is required when it is concerning children playing sports. This may include:

  • ensuring trained first aiders are at hand, relative to the sport;
  • carrying out risk assessments and putting into place procedures to counter these potential hazards;
  • ensuring all participants understand and play by the rules – which are in place to keep games as clean as possible even when involving contact – as well as maintaining records of any illnesses or disabilities;
  • seeing that anyone responsible for working with children complies with the EBCS requirement that they have a current DBS Clearance at Enhanced Level, and have been subjected to an appropriate recruitment process;
  • Keeping attendance registers and contact details

Earlier in 2016 we blogged on an open letter to the UK Government, which included more than 70 academics and doctors calling for a ban on tackling in rugby matches played in UK and Irish schools. In many ways it is a divisive notion, with one camp questioning the traditions and fundamentals of rugby – or indeed any sport where there is any risk of a head injury. At the same time one may argue that if it is a school or sports organisation’s responsibility to minimise such risks and fulfil their duties of safeguarding children, to ban anything that poses such a risk may be seen as logical.

Tracey Benson is a personal injury solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers UK.

Slater and Gordon Lawyers have many years of experience in helping athletes and sportspeople claim compensation for injuries sustained as a result of dangerous or negligent play.

For a free consultation, call our sports injury solicitors on freephone 0800 916 9046 or contact us online and we’ll get back to you.

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