Rugby World Cup winners have joined a chorus of voices calling to reduce tackling in the sport in a bid to stop the growing number of brain injuries afflicting many of its former players.
When the likes of 42-year-old Rugby World Cup winner, Steve Thompson, announced that he could not remember the tournament because his brain was left too damaged from his career, he highlighted that rugby, in its current state, is not fit for contemporary society.
Invented in the 1800s, when safety was far less of a concern, rugby has been resistant to change. But this week, Thompson and 80 other high profile former rugby players announced that they are living with dementia, with many experiencing as early as their 40s.
Another former England player, Michael Lipman, said:
If I knew then what I know now, in terms of how I’m feeling, and what my wife and family go through on a daily basis, I definitely would have been a hell of a lot more careful.
Players are suing several governing bodies, including World Rugby and the Rugby Football Union. The law suit, which is in its infancy, will no doubt grow in claimants.
World Rugby responded to the lawsuit with a statement, saying it “takes takes player safety very seriously and implements injury-prevention strategies based on the latest available knowledge, research and evidence”.
Professional rugby will have its reckoning in the courts. But if the impact of tackling on the brain is strong enough that devoted rugby heroes are suing their former employer, policies need to be drastically revised and soon, particularly for children. The first thing the sport must do is protect young players by banning tackling for under 18s and transitioning to touch rugby.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is not new. It was first described in the 1920s in boxers (it was called “punch drunk syndrome” at the time). But now research is proving what scientists, players and their families have long claimed – that repeated collisions are causing permanent damage to the brain.
When England’s 1966 World Cup-winning football heroes began to be diagnosed with dementia, the football world took notice. Now it is England’s World Cup rugby heroes that are suffering – and suffering younger. The FA banned heading the ball in training for children up to the age of 12, and severely restricted it after. It’s time for the rugby unions to react in the same way.
But whereas football can remove heading from the game, rugby is predicated on collision. As noted by one journalist, the only way to make rugby safe in its current format is to stop playing it. And earlier this year, researchers linked with England’s Rugby Football Union found that their sport offers more head trauma than other sports.
The case of rugby is more reminiscent of what happened to the National Football League in the US after the discovery that players were at increased risk of long-term neurological conditions, particularly CTE. Scores of players sued the NFL and received a US$1bn pay out.
The NFL has, for now, survived. World Rugby has insurance, so it might too. Yet surviving this lawsuit is only one threat to the sport. The fear over children playing the game will no doubt be rugby’s biggest threat.
No more half measures
Sporting bodies can no longer take half measures and policy must evolve to protect the huge numbers of children playing rugby. Children receive legal protection from other known harms, the list for which is very long (smoking and alcohol use, for example).
Both football and rugby are regularly played by children, and particularly in school PE. But whereas children under 12 are not permitted to head the ball in practice, they can tackle another player in rugby training. And where children over 12 are permitted to only head the ball five times a month in football, they can be tackled by a player twice their size as often as the PE teacher decides.
Experts are now calling for tackling to be removed from the sport for children – and curtailed in practice for adults. This means that children should play touch rugby until they are 18. They can then make an informed decision to transition to tackle rugby or continue with touch when they are old enough.
History shows that industries respond to health crises when they are forced to do so – either through legal cases or government legislation. A key example is how the tobacco companies were forced to stop denying the harmful effects of smoking in the 1990s. Rugby is no different. Public pressure and court cases may drive change at some level but legislation is needed to protect players, particularly children.
In the US, the Concussion Legacy Foundation has launched the “tackling can wait” campaign for American Football. It’s time for the UK to follow and protect its children from brain injury by banning tackling in youth rugby. It will be for the courts and the players’ unions to determine how much tackling adults can do – but if they have any sense, they will heed the warnings of those World Cup heroes.