‘If you could walk straight you carried on’: why 55 amateurs are launching legal

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Alex Abbey was a teacher, the head of PE, and he still would be if he could. He had to quit in his early 30s because he started suffering black outs. He had one in a lesson “and the kids all thought I was dead”.

So he sought specialist help. At first, the doctors told him he had motor neurone disease and that he ought to go home and start “making preparations”. After the next round of tests they decided it might be Multiple Sclerosis. He had four years of treatment before they realised it was another misdiagnosis. Finally, he found a neurologist who was able to tell him what was wrong. He has probable Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), probable because it can only be diagnosed definitively postmortem.

This was in 2015, five years before a group of former professional rugby players, including Steve Thompson, Michael Lipman and Alix Popham, first revealed their own probable CTE diagnoses in the Guardian. Like them, Abbey was a rugby player, only he never played professionally. His injuries meant he never got the opportunity.

Now, at 48 years old, he is one of a group of more than 55 amateur players bringing legal action against the game’s authorities, who they accuse of negligence in failing to protect them from brain injury. It’s a separate case to the one involving Thompson, Popham, Lipman and more than 200 professionals, although it is being organised by the same law firm.

Abbey used to be “immersed” in rugby, but hasn’t been inside his local club in years. “I keep getting invited, but I can’t face it to be honest.” He used to be there “six days a week”.

He grew up in Warrington, rugby league country. His father played professionally and as a kid Alex “ate, slept, and breathed it”. He played union for Newton-le-Willows, league in Warrington and turned out for his school team. He was playing open grade club rugby, against adults, by the time he was 13. Through his teenage years he was playing three games a week and doing contact training almost every day in between.

Abbey tried adding it all up. He says he “probably played 600 games” as a teenager, many of them against men. He can pinpoint 18 concussions, the first when he was 12, the last was when he was 30 after he’d come out of retirement to play “with my mates at the bottom of my road”.

Alex Abbey (front row, second right) with his Newton-le-Willows junior team.
Alex Abbey (front row, second right) with his Newton-le-Willows junior team.

Often as not, he’d play on. He felt it was expected of him. “When you got knocked out, they picked you up and poured a bucket of water on your head or put a cold sponge down your back. You woke up and then if you could walk in a straight line you carried on playing.” If you couldn’t walk straight, they’d wait until you could then send you on again.

He was a kid, being “smashed on to the floor, then getting up and going back for more, again and again, and again, then doing it over the next day.” He loved it “because you’re stupid and young and you just keep going and…

Read More: ‘If you could walk straight you carried on’: why 55 amateurs are launching legal 2023-01-19 22:35:00

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