Watch any rugby and the biggest cheer you will hear from, aside from when the home team scores a try, is a massive tackle that knocks the ball carrier backward. We rejoice in the physicality of the sport, the gladiatorial aspect, to the point that it is an essential part of tactical dominance. “Win the collisions” is the somewhat clichéd mantra that players take to heart to win on the scoreboard. The physicality of rugby is not limited to the professional game – it is translated down to school boys. The risk of injury is one of the sport’s biggest challenges.
Last year, Will Smith starred in the movie Concussion, playing a researcher named Bennet Omalu, who became famous over a decade ago when he documented the first case of a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in a deceased American football player. CTE, the theory goes, is the result of repeated head injuries, and leads to all manner of early neurological problems, ranging from depression to dementia.
It is the condition that saw the NFL, the governing body for professional American football, settle a court case brought by retired players for an estimated $1 billion. While rugby does not yet appear to have the problems of American football, it is in the same shadow, which further makes fears around the safety of the sport paramount.
What does “safe” even mean? If it is not as safe as it could be, then what do we need to do, as parents, as teachers, coaches, and players, to reduce the risk? There are no easy answers to these questions. Of the popular sports around the world, rugby has the highest risk of injury. When trying to explain the meaning of “safe,” we enter the gray areas of the eye of the beholder – the parent, the coach, the player – but would suggest it means weighing up the benefits against the risk.
At a conference in the United Kingdom on rugby, one of the researchers – a vocal critic of rugby’s safety issues and one of 70 signatories on a petition to ban tackling in children’s rugby because of fears around the risk of injury – said that until there was no danger at all in rugby, he would not stop being critical.It was argued that a child playing on a jungle gym had a risk greater than zero. Just crossing the street in a city has arisk greater than zero. The researcher’s response to that captures the culture of extreme risk aversion that we are currently faced withperfectly. He said, “Yes, you are right, but that’s why we don’t let our children play on jungle gyms in public spaces anymore.”
Is that not the most tragic mindset to have about children and play? How depressing and demoralizing that we are so obsessed with thedanger that we deny children opportunities to play, just so that it can be managed.
There are also unintended consequences. We have never been less healthy as a society, and children, in particular, are obese at unprecedented levels. Inactivity is a major culprit, and the mindset that prevents children from playing sport because it is dangerous may just be substituting the immediate short-term risk for the long-term, unseen risk of all manner of diseases linked to obesity.
Most recognize that sport has a role to play, and that rugby is a sport loved and chosen by so many of the benefits it provides beyond being physically active (there is a culture of every sport, and the culture of rugby is valuable), we have to seek the balance between accepting some risk for those rewards.
If there is even one thing that can be tweaked or changed to lower the risk in rugby, especially to a child, then that one thing must be a priority. But to deny people access, or the right to play is taking the “nanny state” concept 10 steps too far. All of which brings us back to that final, key question – what can be done to reduce the risk?
For a start, quality coaching is critical. There is now enough evidence and experience that tells us that injuries happen when thetechnique is poor, or when players are not adequately prepared, either physically or technically to play the game. The single greatest investment that can be made to reduce risk is to learn, and this starts young.
For the player, it is about learning to play properly. So much of this comes down to mindset – the sport is not about crushing the opponent, for this is reckless. A well-conditioned, well coached and well –intentioned young player is significantly less likely to get injured when a poorly conditioned, technically deficient one.
Ultimately, zero risk is a misnomer. We can wrap people in cotton wool, prevent them from doing anything that exposes them to danger, and they will die of a chronic disease having lived an unhappy life for 45 years. Or, we can let people find expression through sport, and just take every precaution possible to ensure that their risk is as low as possible. If rugby is the calling, for all its virtues, then answer that call, but move forward with the respect and caution that it deserves.