Comment: Players' right to medical privacy could hide dangers of game
A reckless comment from England head coach Eddie Jones two years ago was enough to understand why a rugby player would want to keep his medical information private. Johnny Sexton came off during Ireland's Six Nations game against France two weeks previously for what Joe Schmidt later described as a "more of a whiplash injury".
In the build-up to the England game, Jones spoke about Sexton. "They've talked about him having whiplash injury which is not a great thing to talk about," Jones said in February 2016. "I'm sure his mother and father would be worried about that".
Sexton has talked about the difficulties he has with his health being publicly discussed and how it affects his insurance which was one of the first times an Irish player couched public knowledge of personal medical information in those terms.
"I have had plenty of bangs on the head. But I've probably had two or three concussions," Sexton said at a Leinster press conference in January. "But you talk about me on concussion and it goes hand in hand. It is very frustrating for me because it's not true and also because we've got insurance companies we've got to talk to that don't believe that I don't get concussions. It can be pretty tricky."
Jamie Heaslip was candid with how he publicly declared he was not disclosing private information on his injury. In December 2017, he said his "medical information is private and it's going to stay that way unfortunately". Because he was rarely injured, it was hard to know if this was just Heaslip's way or if this was the start of a trend.
"I understand we are in a public forum here. You have got to feed the beast a little bit," Heaslip said in March. "At the same time, you have to know where the line is and sometimes players don't know where the line is".
Players are finding out where the line is. Conor Murray hasn't played since Ireland's third Test against Australia in June. There has been no detail about the nature of his neck injury since the start of the season or how long he will be sidelined for. What we do know is that we will continue to not know.
"Upon his (Murray's) request, I can't comment on his injury," Munster head coach Johann van Graan has said. "He's requested that his information remains confidential."
It is easy to understand why a player would exercise the right to keep his medical information private. Players want to protect themselves especially if they're coming to the end of a contract and want to make the most out of their market value in what is a relatively small career window. It is also understandable why they would want to keep the part of their body which has been injured under wraps for fear it might be targeted in the future.
Players have the support of the IRFU and Rugby Players Ireland if they decide to keep their medical profile private. "Injury information is provided to advise of player availability, and where appropriate a brief explanation of the nature of the injury is provided. Recently some players have expressed concern with the level of coverage and scrutiny such updates can generate. The IRFU respect players' rights to privacy in relation to their medical information," a spokesperson from the IRFU said.
"Processes exist with Irish rugby's professional teams where player permission is sought before the public release of any information related to their fitness or availability."
The go-to line in favour of players keeping their medical information private is that they're the same as you and me, and you and me would never be asked to make our medical details public.
But the average person's job doesn't involve playing a contact sport the consequence of which can be suffering a serious injury.
When Republic of Ireland captain Seamus Coleman sustained that horrific leg break against Wales last year there was a backlash against pictures of the incident being shared on social media. As unpalatable as putting forward a counter-argument to this may seem, there is a counter-argument.
It doesn't help prevention if we try to hide the consequences of what happens when a player dangerously tackles another player. That incident should teach any player to never, ever repeat that kind of reckless challenge.
In rugby, there are also serious injuries we only learn about when the union or the players reveal them. Jared Payne suffered a fractured kidney during Ireland's November test against Australia in 2016 and spent five days in hospital. He only discovered there was something wrong when he went to the toilet at half-time and saw blood.
"The doc had a look at me, he found a clot in the toilet," Payne said in an interview months later which gave an insight to the kind of horrific injuries players can sustain.
If players decide to keep injures private, it removes an understanding of how dangerous this game can be. If a player decides not to reveal the seriousness of an injury sustained from a dangerous tackle, then there will be less attention on how players need more protection in this area. P
layer safety needs to be constantly looked at and evolved. And what about concussion? What's to stop a player from vetoing public knowledge that he suffered concussion and thus add a new veil of secrecy to this issue?
The most disturbing quote in the first paragraph above wasn't from Jones but about the "whiplash" injury suffered by Sexton two years ago. Every player has a right to medical privacy. But a consequence of this is that some of the dangers of the game will be hidden from the public, other players and stakeholders of the game.
At a time when questions about player welfare should be at the top of every agenda, silence and confidentiality are troubling answers.