‘Force of nature’: ex-rugby player Doddie Weir leaves lasting legacy, say admirers | Motor neurone disease

Doddie Weir, the former Scotland and British and Irish Lions rugby union player who died over the weekend from motor neurone disease, leaves “a lasting legacy” and will, admirers said, be remembered as a man who helped transform people’s understanding of the disease.

Weir’s death aged 52 was announced by his family on Saturday. His wife, Kathy, said he was “an inspirational force of nature”.

Princess Anne, the royal patron of MND Scotland, was among those paying tribute. She said: “What a sad day. Doddie Weir will be greatly missed. He was truly larger than life, determined, generous and humble. He transformed people’s understanding of MND and funding for research.”

Weir’s friend Jill Douglas, the broadcaster and chief executive of the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, said Weir was someone who always wanted joy, fun and hope to be at the centre of charity’s activities.

“He felt his diagnosis meant there was very little hope and people given his diagnosis were left without hope,” she said. “He felt that was inexcusable.

“He was determined to make a difference and he wanted to shine a light on the fact there was not enough being done for people who are given this diagnosis. His legacy will be to continue to make a difference.”

Weir was part of the successful campaign to get the UK government to invest £50m in targeted MND research.

Douglas said that investment was important. “If you talk to the research community, they believe they are on the cusp of significant breakthroughs. Ten years ago, if you’d asked that same question, you would have had a very different answer.

“People who are at the forefront of this research believe it is within touching distance.”

Weir revealed his MND diagnosis in June 2017. Douglas stressed that it was important to say that MND did not define his life, to remember the importance of family, rugby and farming. “It was the last part of his life and the rest of his life was rich and well lived,” she said.

“But he knew he had an impact. He was impatient for change. He never took the foot off the throttle, he was constantly challenging and pushing and questioning and inspiring … We have a responsibility to take that forward.”

Those sentiments were echoed by MND Scotland, which said Weir’s “tireless efforts to create change will leave a lasting legacy”.

Rachel Maitland, the chief executive of MND Scotland, said: “Doddie Weir was a huge inspiration who will be missed by so many. His bravery in sharing his experience of living with MND helped raise vital awareness across the country and beyond.”

Weir was a part of the United to End MND campaign that led to the government pledge.

Maitland said: “The success of this campaign brings new hope of finding meaningful treatments and a cure sooner. MND does not wait for anyone and now we have another person taken too soon because of this cruel disease.”

Rob Burrow, the former Leeds Rhinos rugby league player who has MND, said Weir was his hero and the money was needed urgently.

He tweeted: “I’m sorry to say, how many more warriors die before this stupid government give the 50m they said they would give. I’m absolutely gutted to see my friendly giraffe die. You are the reason for being so positive RIP.”

Weir was seen recently at Murrayfield, supporting the challenge that former Leeds and England captain Kevin Sinfield set himself to run seven ultramarathons in seven days.

Sinfield said: “I know, on behalf of the whole Ultra 7 in 7 team, it was our ultimate honour that Doddie was at Murrayfield just two weeks ago when we set off on our fundraising challenge.

“With his trademark smile, he insisted that he wanted to be there with his new pink trainers on.”

Sinfield said Weir’s spirit would live on “in all of us knew him. He will always be a champion.”

Tributes were also made to Weir by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Coventry City’s present and future are haunted by ‘curse’ of the CBS Arena | Coventry City

On Thursday afternoon Coventry City told their supporters that they would fulfil Saturday’s Championship fixture against Blackpool and that the venue would be the Coventry Building Society Arena. Confirming a home fixture 48 hours before kick-off is not the sort of thing a football club usually has to do, especially not one that has experienced a remarkable rebirth these past half-dozen years. But when you are a tenant at England’s most cursed stadium, you should never take anything for granted.

Legal action, rent strikes, extended exile and, this autumn, the collapse of one of the country’s leading rugby clubs: the CBS (formerly Ricoh) Arena has seen it all. Little of it has been pretty. The question people in the city are now asking is: does the future hold the prospect of anything better?

The current state of play is characteristically uncomfortable. This month Wasps went into administration, the second Premiership rugby club to do so this autumn, causing a crisis that has shaken domestic rugby profoundly. Players have been made redundant, the team have been suspended from competition and the club hope against hope for a buyer.

The consequences have not ended there. Wasps are also holders of the lease to the CBS Arena, a once-prized asset that the club purchased in 2014. That lease is managed under the auspices of a separate company, which may also go into administration on Monday if a buyer for it cannot be found.

There is interest in acquiring the lease, with Sky News reporting the NEC group, which manages a series of entertainment venues in Birmingham, has tabled a bid. But nothing has yet transpired publicly and this week the bondholders who financed the £35m debt that allowed Wasps to make their move to Coventry were asked to stump up cash immediately to help facilitate the “marketing” of a potential deal.

Wasps play Worcester in May 2021; both clubs are now facing relegation and potential collapse.
Wasps play Worcester in May 2021; both rugby clubs are now facing an uncertain future. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Action Images/Reuters

Were the news not so grim, it might provoke a wry smile among fans and followers of Coventry City, whose recent history has been characterised by dispute over the ownership of the Arena. The Sky Blues’ owner, Sisu Capital Ltd, a London-based hedge fund, only recently abandoned a lengthy, bitter and futile attempt to seek damages from Coventry city council over the deal that allowed Wasps to acquire the lease in the first place.

Sisu argued that the council – which previously owned 50% of the Arena’s lease – had done a deal with Wasps at a subsidised rate. The council argued otherwise and a succession of courts agreed. Only when Sisu was denied the opportunity to pursue the case at a European level were proceedings finally abandoned, on Valentine’s Day this year. Twenty-four hours later, Sisu’s Joy Seppala declared a new era free of antagonism. “We want to draw a clear line under the past and continue to build new and strong relationships with all our partners, including Coventry city council,” she said.

Three months later and Wasps had failed in their obligation to repay the £35m they had borrowed, setting in motion the spiral that reached a climax this autumn. There was, however, time for one further spat. Coventry’s start to the Championship season was delayed after a series of inspections declared the pitch unsuitable.

The blame for substantially churned turf was laid at the feet of rugby players who had competed in 65 sevens matches over three days in July as part of the Commonwealth Games. The pitch had been leased to the Games by Wasps. According to reports in the Telegraph, the possibility of more legal action from Coventry City was incoming. Wasps said that Coventry were well aware of the possibility of a substandard pitch and had been advised to stage their matches away from home.

That latest row may cast a different perspective on the conciliatory pronouncements from Sisu, but what its next move is remains to be seen. The club is involved in a partnership with the University of Warwick to explore the possibility of building a new stadium on its grounds. At the same time, there are consistent reports that Sisu is looking to sell Coventry City, perhaps to an owner who could pick up the stadium lease too.

Fans watch a second-tier game in the club’s first season at the Ricoh Arena – but Coventry have moved away twice since the ground opened in 2005.
Fans watch a second-tier game in the club’s first season at the Ricoh Arena – but Coventry have moved away twice since the ground opened in 2005. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

For Dr Dan Plomley, a specialist in sports finance at Sheffield Hallam University, owning your own ground is crucial for professional sports clubs, especially those outside the Premier League. “The ground is the main asset a club uses to generate money,” he says. “Clubs don’t have a lot of physical assets: it’s pretty much training ground and stadium for the most part. So for a club to be in control of that is always the number one thing. Coventry City have been playing second fiddle [to] Wasps since they took it over in 2014. The minute you become a tenant in your own home it’s a problem.”

Perhaps the one thing worse than being a tenant in your own home is not having a home at all. Wasps’ owners uprooted a club that had a century-long history in London, taking them first to High Wycombe before landing in Coventry where the team, in their latter years especially, have played fixtures to banks of empty sky blue seats. Meanwhile, over the period of Sisu’s ownership, Coventry City have endured two periods of exile, first in Northampton, then in Birmingham. A return to the CBS Arena, under whatever terms, was celebrated by fans.

Dave Eyles, the acting chair of the supporters’ group the Sky Blue Trust, says the uncertainty caused by Wasps’ collapse is “yet another worrying distraction” for the football team and the fans. “We all hope that this can be resolved soon, with the ownership issue of the stadium resolved and a long‑term lease agreed for the club to continue playing in Coventry.” The alternative is beyond contemplation. “A move outside of the city again would be nothing shy of disastrous,” Eyles said.

A new consensus? Change in the air as concussion conference begins | Concussion in sport

You may not know that the sixth International Consensus Conference on Concussion in Sport is being held in Amsterdam this week. You may never even have heard of the Concussion in Sport Group who are organising it, but if you play rugby, football, ice hockey or any number of other contact or collision sports, then the decisions taken there will affect you.

The work of the conference is to review the latest research into concussions, brain injuries, and the short- and long-term effects of head impacts in sport, then produce a consensus statement about the best ways to diagnose and treat them.

It doesn’t matter whether you play in the Premier League or a Sunday league, the consensus document shapes the treatment you’ll receive if you’re hit in the head while playing. CISG is one small group among the large international community of doctors, scientists and researchers who work in this field. The last consensus was signed by 36 people, but the group is supported by the IOC, Fifa and World Rugby, among other sports bodies, which means it has an outsize authority and influence.

Their last conference was held in 2016 and the last consensus was published the following year. They are supposed to happen every four years, but this one was postponed, twice, because of the pandemic, which means the current guidance is six years old. It’s not clear why the organisers felt it was preferable to wait two years to hold an in-person world conference rather than stage an online or hybrid one, but given everything else that has happened in the meantime, it is, at this point, the least of the questions facing CISG.

The chair, Dr Paul McCrory, resigned in March after it emerged he had plagiarised an article he had written for the British Journal of Sports Medicine. McCrory said it was an editing error, but after more investigation the British Medical Journal retracted nine more of his articles, and added expressions of concern to another 74. “The scientific record relies on trust,” the BMJ said, “and BMJ’s trust in McCrory’s work – specifically the articles that he has published as a single author – is broken.”

McCrory was a founder member of the CISG, an influential presence on its committees, and lead author on several iterations of the consensus statement.

Paul McCrory resigned as chair of the CISG.
Paul McCrory resigned as chair of the CISG. Photograph: Florey Institute

The BMJ reviewed the last consensus statement and while they concluded there was no plagiarism involved, they did point out that “the question of the extent of McCrory’s contribution to, and influence on, the five versions of the consensus statement is a matter within the purview of the scientific committee appointed by CISG”. Which was an eloquent way of saying “over to you”.

The problem is not just that McCrory’s own research has been discredited. As an influential member of the CISG scientific committee, he was passing judgment on the credibility and quality of everyone else’s research. The consensus statements have, for instance, consistently questioned the link between head impacts and the neurodegenerative disease CTE. The current one states “a cause-and-effect relationship has not yet been demonstrated between CTE and sports-related concussions or exposure to contact sports”, a line that has been repeatedly cited by the sports’ governing bodies as they defend themselves against calls for reform.

The decision about whether the new consensus should acknowledge the clear and considerable body of evidence of a causal link between CTE and repeated head impacts will be one of the key decisions made at the conference.

Trust in the consensus process was already low, especially among players suffering with the kinds of injuries it is trying to address. There were concerns around the lack of transparency about potential conflicts of interest, the selection methods used to decide who sits on the committees and the criteria used to evaluate research. In the wake of McCrory’s resignation, Fifa, the IOC and World Rugby committed to reviewing the consensus process.

Eight months later, Fifa says “positive steps have been made in relation to the international concussion conference. This includes a revised governance model, the confirmation that CISG remains independent, and changes to the leadership group of the scientific committee.”

Those “changes to the leadership group” refer to the inclusion of Prof Robert Cantu, medical director of the Cantu Concussion Centre, and the independent medical ethicist Prof Mike McNamee. Beyond that, there is not a lot of detail about what’s new. One spokesperson said an effort was being made to include “more critical voices in the room”, although the critical voice they mentioned, Dr Ann McKee, the director of Boston University’s CTE Center, told the Guardian she had decided not to attend. Others will, having paid the €500 fee to be there.

They include Dr Judith Gates and Dr Sally Tucker of the Repercussion Group. “I think of the McCrory case as a stone in the pond,” says Gates. “It has sent ripples through an entire research network, it spreads everywhere his work has been referenced, or quoted, or used to direct new research projects. The ramifications are immense. That’s why this week’s conference is so important. As a community we need to stand up and say: ‘This work is potentially polluted and we don’t yet know the extent of the pollution. So how do we get it back to where we need to be?’”

The Repercussion Group have submitted a white paper to the conference that suggests ways to do it. It asks for a clear, upfront, disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest from CISG members and the inclusion of players, patients and care providers in the process.

“We believe the consensus process should be more precautionary and more player-centred,” says Gates. “We’re not thoughtlessly calling for change, we’re not in the blame game, but we’re saying to CISG: ‘You should have those voices at your table.’”

At heart, the question in Amsterdam is whose consensus this is and whether it reflects the views of CISG or the broader sports community who are subject to its influence.