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Rugby is safer than football. That’s what they say, typically categorically so, as if it’s as tried and true a reality as Newton’s law of gravity. High school and youth coaches squawk it to parents of potential new recruits. Rugby people say it to their ignorant friends and family. Players do it when trying to get others to join their ranks. Administrators, too.
This completely wild, unproven claim is perpetuated by word of mouth over and again, all the time. What’s that Mark Twain said about how a lie can travel the globe before the truth even has a chance to get its boots on? When it comes to this perception, hypothesis, conclusion, myth, we might as well be nothing but a flock of parrots willing to repeat it blindly just because we’ve heard it, unchallenged, so many times before.
We all get how one comes to that caveman conclusion – laws and technique around the tackle are designed to keep the head clear of the nastier bits of the collision, and ideally not involved at all. We don’t have shoulder pads and helmets, so we’re forced to be more technically sound out of necessity.
The close-eyed shoulder charges that plague the NFL, like the recently viral failed attempt by Marcus Williams of the New Orleans Saints to decapitate Stefan Diggs of the Minnesota Vikings, which led to Diggs’ game-winning touchdown in the NFL playoffs, aren’t allowed in rugby.
Inevitably, as we esoteric, rugby-is-superior-to-football freaks tend to do, well-meaning good rugby people took William’s guffaw as an opportunity to remind the world, or at least the part of the world reached by social media, that rugby is safer than football for this reason. Just like we like to remind people that rugby is better than football because there are no pads, Buck Shelford had a testicle ripped out and Georgia Page played through her broken nose.
The problem is, this entire premise is built on a house of cards that will eventually blow over. It’s only a matter of time.
Rugby is not safer than football because we don’t have the kind of senseless headhunting displayed in the Williams tackle attempt. Rugby, with its laws and technique around the tackle, is safer than rugby would be if we tried to tackle like they do in American football. That assertion is comfortably true.
However, rugby isn’t anywhere near safe. Concussions happen, often. The latest report by the Rugby Football Union, completed with data from the 2015/2016 season, including Aviva Premiership matches, trainings, and European club and England national team competitions, says concussions occur 13.4 times per 1,000 hours of play. That’s the equivalent of one concussion in slightly less than every two matches. By comparison, the NFL’s reported numbers indicate a concussion occurs slightly more often than once every one-and-a-half games.
The RFU has published its injury report since 2002. For the fifth year running, concussion was the most reported in-match injury, constituting 25-percent of those occurring during a game. The reason for the trend is believed to be the increase in head injury assessments, a practice only recently put in place by World Rugby, indicating there aren’t more concussions now than before. Rather, there are just more diagnosed.
Those numbers, scientifically mined by people paid to do those sorts of things, in no way indicate rugby is safe. They barely indicate rugby is safer than football, and the studies only involve the top level of the sport, meaning we don’t have the numbers to suggest youth rugby is any safer than youth football. It’s like saying, don’t drink bleach because it’ll kill you. Instead, eat Tide pods because they’ll kill you slightly less often!
If the numbers alone aren’t enough, and you need some of the emotionally-draining, sad anecdotal tales that have been playing on an endless loop about football players since Bennet Omalu’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, start and stop with that of Steve Murra, a beloved member of the American rugby community whose battle with CTE is equal parts haunting and frightening.
Across the country, there are stories of youth football leagues folding and participation plummeting amid fear of a concussion epidemic. Multiple states have seen bills come to fruition that would ban tackle football below a certain age, 14 in Maryland and 12 in Illinois.
Rugby people see this as an opportunity – football is going downhill because it’s too dangerous, rugby is safer than football, and therefore rugby can benefit from the culling. If these benefits are built around the unproven truth, if not outright lie, that rugby is a safe space from concussions, they’ll be short-lived and harmful over the long haul.
Rest assured, rugby is not in the crosshairs of America’s concussion crusade solely because it’s not big enough for the right people to care about it, yet. The more mainstream rugby becomes, the more questions it will have to answer about what the sport’s doing around concussion education and prevention.
That doesn’t mean we should cancel the matches and just play touch. It doesn’t mean playing rugby, or even tackle football for that matter, isn’t worth doing. There are all kinds of benefits to playing sports, including those with higher concussion rates. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to gather as much information as possible, disseminate that information to as wide an audience as possible, and ultimately make policy, law and protocol changes to try and make the game safer.
At the grassroots level, that should mean an instant doing away of any mention that rugby is the “safe” tackle sport. Take it off your recruiting materials, your local union’s website, and perhaps most importantly, out of your mouths. It should also mean the mandating of certified athletic trainers, or medical staff of equal or greater ability, on the sideline working every single match that’s played in America.
Current concussion protocols are insufficient. There is still too much guess work involved, and we are too reliant on the information we get from the potentially concussed player to make a diagnosis. But, at the very least, rugby needs to be exercising the most up-to-date best practices. This means taking medical decisions out of the hands of coaches and parents and putting it into those of medical professionals. Before you buy a set of kits, beer for the post-match social or a bag of balls, you should make sure you have the funds to assure there’s a trainer on your sideline every Saturday.
At the top level in America, it should be education. USA Rugby has recently rolled out some new media to this vane, promoting safe play. Create more. But education has two sides. First, the educator has to educate itself. The RFU shouldn’t be the only union collecting and mining its own data. USA Rugby needs to collect data scientifically and aggregate the real numbers in conjunction with its medical staff. Then shove it all down our throats and work it as deeply into required prerequisites for registration and membership as possible.
At the game’s top level altogether, World Rugby, there’s a lot of work to do, too, evidenced most recently by the injury Martin Iosefo suffered in pool play against Samoa Saturday at Hamilton 7s. With just over two minutes to play in the match, Iosefo was met in a tackle by Gordon Langkilde, during which the Samoan’s arms and shoulders were below Iosefo’s. However, Langkilde tackled Iosefo from directly in front, not putting his head to a side, causing a head-to-head collision.
In rugby, we’re attuned to looking for swinging arms, shoulder charges and neck rolls when it comes to adjudicating dangerous tackles. Because we don’t wear helmets, those head-to-head hits are seemingly rarer in rugby than in the NFL. And in this case, no penalty was called.
Iosefo would play on in that match. He passed the head injury assessment and was not diagnosed with a concussion, at least not as of Sunday, but head coach Mike Friday said he and his staff did not feel comfortable putting him back in and held him out the rest of the day.
As of the time of print, no sanction, suspension or discipline of any kind has been handed down to Langkilde. World Rugby’s announcers even lauded the tackle in the moment. This is deeply troubling. This head-to-head collision happened at the top level of the game with the best stable of 7s referees and administrators World Rugby has on offer. Still, a blatant collision of heads went unacknowledged and unpunished, and was even celebrated.
This isn’t the first time rugby’s gotten it wrong at the top level. In August, during a Bledisloe Cup match between Australia and New Zealand, Sonny Bill Williams was apparently out on his feet after a tackle, staggering around like a boxer about to hit the canvas. He was allowed to play on, engaging in two more tackles in short order, when he should have been pulled off for assessment.
The incident drew due criticism, and ultimately SANZAAR acquitted New Zealand Rugby Union of any deliberate wrongdoing. But it was a prime example that even on the biggest stage, with the brightest star in the world, rugby’s approach toward concussion management and prevention isn’t up to par.
Across the board, rugby needs to take the concussion issue far more seriously. And, like with tackle technique, needs to take a different approach than football. There isn’t a single rugby entity, not USA Rugby, the RFU or even World Rugby, with deep enough pockets to throw money at it in an effort to make it go away like the NFL was made to. Ultimately, it wasn’t the existence of concussions that got football where it’s at, it was the secrecy and coverups around information regarding concussions and their long-term impact.
Instead, rugby needs to get ahead of the inevitable questions and concerns with honesty and transparency. And we rugby people at the coalface, as rugby’s stakeholders and caretakers, need to believe the science put in front of us, uniformly adopt best practices, and put an immediate, full stop on perpetuating misconceptions around our game’s safety. It’s time to stop just talking about player welfare and to start actually being about player welfare.