Rugby Faces the Same Challenges as Football

The 6 Nations Championship kicked off this month. Liam Day says it’s the perfect opportunity to look at the issue of sports-related brain injuries from a different perspective.

It means little to most Americans, but the annual 6 Nations Championship, known by its sponsored name, RBS 6 Nations, began earlier this month. The 6 Nations is an annual rugby tournament among the national teams of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy.

The tournament began 130 years ago as the Home Nations Championship among the countries that then comprised the United Kingdom. France began competing shortly before World War I, Italy at the start of this century.

Going into this weekend, England, having won both its matches, including beating Ireland at Aviva Stadium in Dublin 12-6, is ahead in the standings (for GMP’s Anglophilic readers, that would be fixtures) after two rounds of play.

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I mention all of this not to pretend I can report on rugby with any knowledge. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you the difference between rugby union and rugby league. I do, however, think the start of the 6 Nations provides an opportunity to address from an international angle an issue we’ve covered on The Good Men Project before. That is the issue of traumatic brain injury.

In the past, I’ve written about chronic traumatic encephalopathy as it pertains to American football. But what about rugby, a sport played by more people around the world than football is here at home, a sport that is the evolutionary forebear to football, and furthermore one that is as violent as football.

As the issue of football concussions and the resulting CTE has grown over the last decade a number of commentators have looked to rugby as a source for a possible solution, as if there were, in fact, a solution to the problem of two extremely large, extremely fit, extremely fast young men hurtling into one another at frightening speeds.

Take off the helmets, some people said, and football players will stop using their heads as weapons. Change the rules of tackling to more resemble rugby, whose players use their arms and not their shoulders and heads to bring down opposing runners.

Despite pretty conclusive data that neither of these changes would make a dent in the rate of concussions football players suffer, they continue to be peddled as appropriate responses to the growing epidemic. The helmet argument was again made just last year in Forbes Magazine. The problem is that concussion rates in rugby are just as high as in football. A 2011 study out of the University of North Carolina showed that concussion rates in rugby were, in fact, much higher than even previously supposed.

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What then is the solution? My hypothesis is that there is no solution, that if you play football or if you play rugby you are likely to suffer concussions and the brain trauma that comes with them. However, that is only a hypothesis, not one likely to be accepted by very many people, and certainly not one whose confirmation is sought by anyone who stands to profit from the sport of football or rugby. (I’m looking at you, Roger Goodell, whose 2011 pay as NFL Commissioner was reported at $29 million, including bonuses.)

Even if it were, though, I’m not sure how much of a difference it would make. I’m not as confident as Andrew O’Hehir at Salon, who predicts that football’s popularity in the United States will decline in the coming decades just as horse racing’s and boxing’s popularity did in the second half of the 20th century.

First off, the NFL is king in this country. The league is by far the most popular of any of the professional sports leagues with franchises in the United States. There is also the matter of participation. Football is the sport played by high school students more than any other. In fact, the next most popular sport has participation rates that are only about half of football’s.

The same trends hold true for rugby, which is played in roughly 120 countries and whose participation rates have been increasing over the last decade.

Then there is the question, at least at the NFL and the international rugby levels, of the Goldman Dilemma. As Neil Cohen discussed on The Good Men Project, the Goldman Dilemma is a phenomenon among elite athletes identified by a researcher, by the name of Bob Goldman, in 1984. The question posed to the athletes was this: would you take a drug that guaranteed you would win a Gold Medal, even if you knew it would kill you in 5 years. 52% of the respondents said yes. Goldman repeated the survey for more than a decade, achieving the same results each time.

Essentially, that is the deal that many elite football and rugby players are making. They are willing to overlook what might kill them in 5, 10, or 15 years in order to compete at the highest levels of their sport today.

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What good, then, is any comparison between the two sports? Well, in a word, data. And, in this regard, the NFL, as it does in implementing rules changes to protect its players, seems to be ahead of, say, the International Rugby Board, though the latter organization did just announce that new rules governing the scrum, which has been identified as a particular culprit when it comes to concussions on the rugby pitch, would be piloted at this year’s Pacific Rugby Cup.

In the past, there has been a great deal of reticence among the players, coaches, and governing bodies of the respective sports about concussions. To acknowledge football and rugby might be causing permanent brain damage would most likely require fundamentally changing how the games are played. And culturally speaking, among football and rugby players, to express concern about concussions would be perceived by teammates and opponents as an expression of fear, one not fit for the real men who play these sports.

To a certain extent, the former has already started happening. In addition to the aforementioned changes in the rules governing the rugby scrum, the NFL has instituted a series of measures designed to protect quarterbacks and receivers, the players most often left exposed to vicious head-on-head hits. Unsurprisingly, these changes were met by oppostion from players and former players alike, who worried that the rules changes would water down their beloved sport. Brian Urlacher, the Chicago Bears’ All-Pro linebacker, snidely commented that they should start calling the NFL the NFFL instead—the National Flag Football League.

This leads me to believe that, in regard to the second barrier to talking about concussions listed above, the culture among the players in both sports hasn’t changed very much. As recently as 2010, the BBC in Wales reported on a survey it conducted in which it found that less than 1 in 5 suspected rugby concussions were reported. As one player, who estimates in the previous season alone he suffered 8 concussions he never reported, was quoted as saying, “But the rugby player mentality is they get injured, that’s part of the game and they carry on playing.”

This has to change, not only for the health and safety of the players, but for the data we need to prevent, to the extent possible, future concussions. The NFL and NCAA are tracking concussions as precisely as possible. The International Rugby Board needs to push national boards and leagues to do the same. For without accurate data on concussion rates among the sport’s players, how are we to measure the effectiveness of any rules changes in reducing those rates?

And it is in examining the sports’ respective concussion data that the utility of a comparison between football and rugby lies. They can, in some ways, play the role of control group for each other. For if we can collect accurate data on concussions, in turn allowing us to measure the effectiveness of rules changes in reducing their rates, we can then examine whether any rules changes empirically found to reduce the rate of concussions in one of the sports can be applied in the other.

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Of course, all of that will take time. In the interim, we need to do our part in keeping the conversation about concussions alive. A public conversation about the dangers of concussions can perhaps destigmatize them and help to increase the rate of self-reporting among players, particularly rugby players.

More significantly, the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association are stepping up to increase funding to research and prevent football injuries, including concussions. The Players’ Association recently awarded Harvard $100 million for the creation of an Integrated Program to Protect and Improve the Health of NFLPA Members and the NFL has teamed up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to increase concussion awareness and management among coaches, parents, schools and youth leagues across the country.

To paraphrase Sarah Palin (sorry, I couldn’t resist), all of this may just be putting lipstick on a pig, but, assuming that we’re not going to stop playing and watching football or rugby tomorrow, we need to do what we can to mitigate their risks until we do.

For those rugby fans out there, since I started writing this post England has defeated France 23-13 in the third round, keeping alive its hopes for a Grand Slam, which would be its first in the 6 Nations since 2003. There is, however, a piece of me that hopes you care just a little less about that than you might have a decade ago.

AP Photo/Tom Hevezi

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About Liam Day

Liam Day has been a youth worker, teacher, campaign manager, political pundit, communications director, and professional basketball player. His poems have appeared at Slow Trains Apt, and Wilderness House Literary Review. His op-eds and essays have appeared in Annalemma Stymie, the Boston Globe and Boston Herald. He lives in Boston, where he works as a public health professional. He is the Sports Editor at The Good Men Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @LiamDay7.

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