By Prof Dr Steve Cornelius Sports Law Centre University of Pretoria South Africa
A group of 73 health experts recently submitted an open letter to government ministers in the United Kingdom, calling for tackling to be banned in schools rugby so that the risk of injury to children can be reduced. This led to an inevitable backlash from current and former rugby players and rugby administrators. The governing body for rugby union in England, the Rugby Football Union, explained that it took safety extremely seriously and pointed to various benefits which playing rugby offers for children.
It is hard to deny that rugby players – at all levels -suffer a disproportionately high rate of injury. Professional rugby players are 1,000 times more likely to be injured than mine workers working in some of the most hazardous circumstances (see my article on Sports Injuries, Part 1 of which appeared in the December 2015 issue of GSLTR and part 2 of which appears in the March 2016 edition). And rugby injuries can range in severity from mild bruising to life threatening.
Studies in the United Kingdom have also shown that rugby players up to the age of 19 years have a 28% risk of getting injured over a 15-match season. Most injuries occur during collisions on the field during tackles, scrums and rucks. So perhaps there may be some merit in removing these high risk aspects from the game.
However, as World Rugby was quick to point out, rugby does not necessarily pose a higher risk of injury than other sports. Research has shown that the injury rate in football is comparable to the injury rate in rugby. And even sports and other activities that do not include violent collisions, show astounding injury rates among young participants.
A study of adolescent male and female ballet dancers in the United States revealed that more than two-thirds of ballet dancers reported injuries over the course of one year. These injuries ranged from minor ankle sprains to spinal injuries. What this study of ballet dancers also revealed was that most injuries were the result of repetitive strain. And perhaps herein lies, at least, some of the answer in dealing with rugby injuries sustained by school boys.
Perhaps the answer lies not only in avoiding collisions on the field, but also in the way our young sports people are managed. One of the leading voices calling for the removal of tackles from schools rugby is Prof Allyson Pollock of Queen Mary University of London. She has a personal motivation, as she herself explains (http://health.spectator.co.uk/what-schools-dont-want-you-to-know-about-rugby/), as her son was hospitalised twice as a result of injuries sustained on the rugby field. Her tale is an epic example of mismanagement by coaching staff. On the day in question, her son, while playing for his school’s 3rd team, was taken off the field in mid-game because an injury had left the first team short of wingers. Clearly, one has to question the wisdom of a coach who would take a fatigued player, who already had a history of serious injury, and promote him from the 3rd team straight into the 1st team.
Studies have shown that the risk of injury increases as fatigue increases. Consequently, reducing the duration of games could also help to reduce the risk of injury. One also has to question the wisdom of having players participate in 15 or more games per season. Fatigue does not only increase in the course of a game, but also in the course of a season, as players are continuously exposed to repetitive training regimes and match after match. A further factor which could reduce the risk of injury could, therefore, also be to limit the total number of hours that any one player may play during a season. In many other industries, the number of hours children may work is limited. Perhaps sport should impose similar limits. Young developing bodies are just not able to deal with the intensity of training and competing week in and week out.
Studies have also shown that players, who have been injured once, are more likely to sustain further injuries in the course of a season. There can be various reasons for this, but again, studies have shown that a major contributing factor in this regard is that players are not allowed adequate time to recover from injuries. This is, in part, a result of the player’s own desire to return to competition, as soon as possible, but it could also be the result of peer pressure and pressure from coaches.
Pollock’s own research has also revealed that players in the first or second team are more likely to get injured than players in the third or fourth teams. The reason is obvious. Hardly anybody cares if a school’s fourth team loses a match, but everybody cares if the first team loses. As a result, a further factor, which may substantially contribute to the injury rate among young players, is the high premium placed on winning.
This often results in schools consciously and actively seeking to attract the best talent for their teams. Or, while schools might not actively seek out talented players, success on the playing field tends to attract more talented players to a school. The end result is that talent becomes concentrated in certain schools teams and the intensity of the game is increased substantially. This raises the risk of injury. The practice of recruiting players to schools have led at least one elite rugby school in Pretoria, South Africa, to withdraw from certain tournaments and refuse to play against schools who recruit players.
The misguided focus on winning also means that many parents often place undue pressure on children to perform. I have to share a personal anecdote here: When I recently visited my general practitioner for a check-up, a mother, whose son was knocked unconscious during a rugby match and carried off the field, came into the consultation room and requested the doctor to provide a note clearing her son to take part in the coming weekend’s cross country trials! The look on the doctor’s face said it all and she rebuked the mother in no uncertain terms.
At schools level, the focus should be on participation and fun, and on skills development and fitness. And the best interest of the child should always be the guiding principle. The opposite is often true. The emphasis on winning puts pupils in sports and other disciplines at unnecessary risk of injury.
While reducing or eliminating the collisions in rugby may prevent many injuries, there is a bigger picture that needs to be considered. The nature of the game is not the only risk factor involved. Children can only be protected if all the risk factors are identified and adequately addressed.
What do GSLTR readers think?