THE FOLLOWING RECENTLY APPEARED IN SPORTS LITIGATION ALERT
(Editor’s Note: To say Bob Latham is passionate about rugby would be an understatement. Besides being the chairman of USA Rugby, the Jackson Walker partner sits on the International Rugby Board Council, the IRB Executive Committee, and chairs the IRB Regulations Committee. We wanted to learn more about that passion, which is why we reached out to him for an interview, which follows.)
Question: How did your interest in rugby come about?
Answer: I started playing in 1978 when I was a student at Stanford University. I was looking for a new challenge in sports and I had a number of friends at Stanford who had migrated to rugby from other sports which, at the time, was how most American rugby players started in the sport. They talked me into stepping onto the pitch, and I have never looked back from there.
Q: What are the most pressing legal issues in the sport?
A: The legal issues are generally tied together with other issues, be they matters of governance, playing, branding, or discipline. While rugby is a very physical sport, we want it to be as safe as we can make it. So, issues of player welfare are always at the forefront — from on-field issues to issues relating to rugby’s calendar. Making sure that we have a disciplinary structure that is perceived as fair and consistent and serves as a deterrent for dangerous play is something we constantly look at.
Further, we have recently had a number of issues surrounding player eligibility, especially for players with dual citizenship and in light of rugby rejoining the Olympics last year. And while doping has not been prevalent historically in rugby, we work to keep it that way with our anti-doping efforts. Ultimately, there must be an education component working alongside the legal issues to ensure that our membership is enforcing our laws and regulations at all levels of the game.
Q: How are you and the bodies you represent addressing the concussions issue?
A: The concussion issue is something we are constantly looking at. The Chief Medical Officer of World Rugby, Martin Raftery, has established an impressive network of experts that provide us with the most up-to-date analysis. We are very transparent with regard to any information that we have. We look at our tackle laws and how they can be tweaked to reduce the incident of concussions. In fact, several well-known American football coaches have been bringing in rugby coaches to teach their players rugby tackling techniques. Our disciplinary procedures and sanctions reflect how seriously we take any contact with the head area. Our protocols for dealing with a possible concussion, including our laws providing for a Head Injury Assessment (HIA), are reviewed constantly so that they reflect the latest expert recommendations. Our referee training includes training in how to handle a suspected concussion. And again, much of it is educational — education as to how to recognize a concussion, education as to the effects of a concussion and education as to the proper protocol when a concussion is suspected. What I think is very positive in this regard is the direction the culture of the sport is taking. No one wants to see a player who may be concussed staying on the pitch to “fight through it” or to just “suck it up.” When you have players at the top level of the game advocating a policy of “recognize and remove” when it comes to concussions, it very much helps that message resonate at the community and youth level.
Q: What can be learned from the experience of the NFL and NHL with regard to concussion?
A: Well, look, without a thorough dive into their histories on the issue, I don’t want to go too far with any comments regarding the NFL and NHL. But I think there are some universal points. The first is that you cannot ignore the issue. It is an issue, it needs to be addressed, and it needs to be re-addressed constantly. Assemble all relevant information, have the best experts in the world involved, and share that information in a timely way with your players, coaches and constituents. Train your referees and coaches in proper concussion protocol — it is not a sign of toughness to stay on when you have a concussion, and coaches should not be expecting that of a player. Adjust and enforce the rules of your game in a way that reduces the incident of concussions. Use all resources to recognize a concussion — be it a teammate seeing the nature of the injury, a referee seeing it, even video replay if it is available. Vigilance and caution are especially necessary at the youth level. Youth coaches, referees, administrators, even parents should be educated on this issue. One other thing to note — you mention American football and ice hockey. But every sport should have a concussion policy. I have seen concussions in girls’ volleyball and soccer. If there are any dinosaurs out there who still don’t believe that this is serious stuff, they should know this: the market will not tolerate a casual approach to concussions. With the attention that the issue is getting, and will continue to get, the prevailing attitude of the fans will be “get that guy out of there,” and not “wow, what a tough guy.”
Q: Rugby is gaining in popularity in the United States. Given your extensive experience, what challenges does its expansion into the states present in the area of media law and intellectual property, which are two areas that you have a great deal of expertise?
A: I suppose issues of intellectual property come into play, particularly with our branding. Rugby arose in the USA as a counter-culture sport, getting traction in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. There are still some who don’t understand the concept of a national governing body, and think that anything it does to bring the sport into the mainstream is antithetical to how the sport developed in modern times here. Keeping it from being branded as an outlaw sport, which some like to perpetuate, is a challenge.
Along with that comes the attitude that anything that is done to promote rugby should be tolerated, even if it’s not consistent with our brand. So, as we try to enter the pantheon of mainstream sports — the Olympic inclusion being critical to that – it’s important for us to make sure that the brand of rugby in the USA is a positive one. The fundamental of our brand is that this is a fantastic and inclusive sport — a sport for all, a physical sport that we try to make as safe as possible given its physicality and that we play with respect and integrity. That means we must remain vigilant to ensure that people are not doing things that could be associated with USA Rugby that are not consistent with our brand.
On the media side, we are trying to make as much rugby content available to our members as we can. We started The Rugby Channel, an OTT service, in 2016 to bring both domestic and international content. And the more traditional broadcasters are taking a much greater interest — particularly leading up to, and now after, the Rio Olympics. One of the challenges there is to be able to satisfy the desires of our older members who are not used to the idea of watching rugby on a PDA and our younger generation members who don’t own TV’s and get all of their content on newer platforms. So, the landscape there is ever-changing but exciting.
Q: What will the sport of rugby look like in the U.S. in 10 years?
A: The thing that I like most about futurists is that they can make a prediction of what is going to happen 75 or 100 years from now, and they will never be proven wrong in their lifetime. A ten-year horizon is more of a challenge! I am confident that we will have far more youth players than we have now. There is such an opportunity for growth there, and with the exposure rugby is getting and will continue to get I have every confidence that rugby will stay the fastest growing team sport in the USA. Moving up the chain from there will make a big difference in our high school numbers. At the university level, that has always been a strong suit for us on both the men’s and women’s side. But with the rise in youth and high school numbers there will be many more elite, high-quality university programs where those players could continue to play. Many more of our elite players will have come to rugby as their first sport rather than crossing over from a different sport. Women’s rugby may become NCAA recognized, meaning that it would be under the direction of the NCAA and university varsity athletic departments. Rugby will remain in the Olympics, and this being an Olympic-crazed nation, our men’s and women’s 7’s teams will continue to be among the best in the world, though many teams throughout the world will up their game as well. At the top level of the game, you are going to see new opportunities arise. Traditional rugby countries see a great untapped rugby market here — and they are right. How that market gets tapped is a matter of great debate and conjecture, but expect a lot of activity in that regard. Our senior women’s team played in the WRWC semifinal, which bodes well for the future. We have long talked about how to get our men’s 15’s team into the knock-out rounds of a Rugby World Cup. That is a huge focus. With added competition, and with structures that are being put in place, I think it can become a reality in the next 10 years.