Doctors recently voiced their concerns over rugby being played in schools across the United Kingdom and Ireland.
In a recent open letter to Ministers, over 70 academics, experts and doctors expressed their concerns over the risk of serious injury and concussions from this “high-impact collision sport”. Many doctors and public health officials consider tackling to be dangerous, and a cause of many a horrific injury. A suggestion from many doctors is to introduce touch rugby to schools instead, to minimise the risk of injury.
According to one signatory, Professor Allyson Pollock (from Queen Mary University of London), “if you’re thinking of a million children playing every year with this risk of injury you’re looking at 300,000 extra injuries a year, including up to 100,000 concussions.” However, whatever the medical profession thinks – sports and schools think differently. In response, former England rugby player Matt Perry stated that he himself “took a risk when I started rugby at seven and I’m afraid at school level if that tackle is taken out we’ve lost one of the great games and one of the great cultural games.”
Many sports and school leaders have come out in favour of rugby. Not only do they consider that it builds character, but life lessons learned are invaluable. Skills such as teamwork, leadership, sportsmanship, a healthy sense of competition, and a certain ruggedness are all developed. Of course, the world of professional rugby would be the first to admit to the dangers – but they say that is part of the benefits. Learning how to assess and deal with such risk, and learning how to face such risk and danger, is again another vital skill for the young to learn.Sports and schools do agree with the doctors that scrums and tackling can be dangerous – but disagree over any ban. As such, they are calling for proper training in tackling and scrums, and better Rugby technique, being taught, as opposed to an outright ban. Many point out that most injuries happen as a result of bad tackling, or poor technique. Teaching children how to play the sport properly, with proper techniques, would go a long way to eliminating a lot of the risks – to the relief of doctors.
The doctors, though, definitely (as always) have the best intentions, and the children’s’ interests at heart. Having had to deal with the aftermath of too many rugby tackles gone wrong, serious injuries in scrums, and often life altering damage done on the rugby pitch, their desire is to prevent any further serious sporting injuries among the youth of today. Banning rugby in favour of touch rugby or similar is absolutely in the best interests of safety, and will prevent many further injuries.
Most sports, from football to badminton, squash to athletics, carry with them an element of danger and risk. As such, where does this end? Could football be considered to dangerous and risky? What about tennis? The very traditional English sport of cricket would also be a prime candidate to be banned or made easier (soft cricket balls?). Sports by their nature often carry a degree of risk. As sportsmen and women, and teachers, have been saying in response, that is a great part of what builds young character and spirit: that reaction to such risk, and facing and assessing what can be quite dangerous. Aside from that, many life lessons are learned whilst playing competitive sports – from camaraderie to sportsmanship.
Further, it is well known that childhood obesity rates continue to rise – and continues to be a great social and national health issue. More and more children are turning to the XBox and tablet as opposed to the rugby ball and sports. The 21st century electronic revolution is changing the habits of thousands of children from the outdoors, sports, and team pursuits into sedentary, isolated computer based pursuits. Sports and PT in schools are often the only time for many children that they will actually be physically active. Of course, there are many thousands of children and teenagers who embrace sports, outdoor pursuits, martial arts, the uniformed services and similar – but there are many more thousands who do not.
Faced with such a cultural problem amongst the young, doctors and schools are united in trying to reverse the trend, and to address what is a worrying public health trend. If left unchecked, the current generation of children are more likely to develop medical issues such as diabetes, heart conditions, and some forms of cancer, than in previous generations. Those diseases will also manifest themselves much younger. Schools, youth charities and organisations, and relevant public health initiatives are all working hard to address this. As such, this call by leading doctors to ban rugby seems like an own try or conversion.
By replacing rugby with touch rugby, doctors are potentially sacrificing one set of public health goals for another. If such competitive and ‘dangerous’ sports are banned – then potentially it will be harder to encourage good physical fitness habits amongst the young.
Whilst it is important that rugby and other sports are promoted and not banned, this call by many in the medical profession does highlight the inherent risks and choices surrounding public health. Often, public health officials and doctors have to make decisions which are in the best interests of as many people as possible.
Those decisions will not always be popular – but they have to be made, to the sake of protecting and safeguarding public health issues and concerns, whatever they may be. Indeed, with that in mind, sometimes public health might contradict itself, as is the case here.
Although banning rugby (and potentially other sports) seems absurd and contrary to trying to promote physical activity and better public health – it does help to tackle another set of public health concerns, namely serious sporting injuries.
Public health officials and doctors are often (as here) faced with conflicting priorities – which are often both contradictory, but complementary at the same time. It can be difficult to balance such conflicting priorities – but a middle ground has to be found.
At time of writing, England are currently one of the leaders in the Six Nations Rugby, following their victory over Wales. As such, there is all the more reason to inspire and develop the next generation of Will Carling’s, Jonny Wilkinson’s, Gethin Jenkinson’s, and Brian O’Driscoll’s – as opposed to making the sport safer and more risk averse.