In an open letter to the UK Government, more than 70 academics and doctors have called for a ban on tackling in rugby matches played in UK and Irish schools.
This follows a series of reports and calls over the last few years to address the potential for brain injuries to be caused by playing contact sports, in particular rugby. However, the letter widens the concern beyond head injuries to include spinal injuries, fractures, dislocations and ligamentous tears.
I must declare an interest here, as a serious injuries solicitor, I see the very real effects and consequences upon peoples’ lives of acquired brain injury. I also have an interest as I’m an ex-rugby player, a junior rugby coach and a dad of a 12-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl who both love and play the game. I feel I have a foot firmly in both camps and bring an appreciation of the tension between the interests of safety and the benefits of the game as a whole.
All sports, but in particular team sports like rugby, have benefits beyond calculation for us individually and collectively as society. Sport keeps us fit, challenges us, develops us as people, and we learn discipline, co-operation and respect. We learn our limitations and how to overcome those limitations.
There are risks involved, there always will be. The challenge is to manage those risks without destroying what is great about the game. Isn’t learning to manage risks as they grow one of the most important lessons a child will learn?
It must be acknowledged that the game as a whole over the recent past has vastly improved the awareness of the seriousness of head injuries and the way those injuries are dealt with. Whilst it is not perfect, (and undoubtedly more can be done) player welfare at whatever age now rightly sits foursquare at the centre of the game and is of paramount importance.
A very large part of coaching in the early years is now to ensure the safety of the children in the game. “Get your head in the right place!” echoes across many acres of muddy Sunday mornings as 8-year-olds are taught how to tackle safely. They are by and large too small and light and not quick enough to cause long-term damage to themselves as they learn how to tackle safely. My own concern is that if this learning process is delayed until they are adults, then the capacity for injury increases exponentially and exacerbates the very harm it sought to avoid in the first place.
The UKs leading brain injury charity, Headway, has written what I feel is a well-balanced response to this important issue. In responding to the letter, the charity has not joined in the chorus to ban tackling for the under 18s, rightly recognising that “It is vital to ensure players are taught the correct tackling techniques in rugby. If they are prevented from tackling until they are 18, they will be ill-prepared for adult rugby and would be more likely to sustain serious injury as a result.”
Headway recognises the improvements made and that the sport “has committed to improving concussion awareness and protocols, and a significant amount of change has occurred over the past few years. The sport has to take credit for this, although it is clear the momentum needs to be maintained with awareness and education campaigns at grassroots level.”
All sport carries inherent risk. In the UK, over 1,300 under 16s are tragically killed or seriously injured each year through cycling accidents (and 70 per cent of these are due to head injuries). The answer is not to ban football or cycling but make those sports as safe as they can be, to introduce children to them in as safe a manner as possible without destroying the very essence of the sport as you do so.
Headway sensibly calls for the UK Government to provide concussion awareness training to all teachers – not just those conducting the sports lessons – confirming the sport’s own position of “if in doubt, sit it out!”.
A rational view has to be taken; to ban tackling is to ban the sport. Touch or tag rugby is a very different beast to contact rugby, and indeed has its own place in the pantheon. It introduces the handling and running skills at a young age which are central to the game but not uniquely so. Tackling is a skill equally central to the game and children must learn how to execute this skill as a safely as possible.
It’s important we encourage children to play a fantastic and rewarding team sport but it is equally important that the protection of those children involved should be the rock upon which all else is built.
Finally do you know what else rugby is? It’s fun! And you make friends, many of whom last a lifetime.
We should encourage our kids to play it, and we should keep them keep them safe as we can whilst they do so, isn’t that the whole point?
You can visit the Headway website for more information on the If in Doubt, Sit it Out campaign and to download a fact-sheet on concussion in sport.
Mathew Thomas is a personal injury solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Liverpool.
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