Tackling time bomb?

Tackling time bomb?

Simon Lebus revisits the issue of tackling in school rugby, suggesting we're sitting on a time bomb of injuries and lawsuits.

Autumn, and the start of the new school year, also the beginning of the new rugby season. Just in time for that, researchers from the Sport Collision Injury Collective (SCIC) have renewed calls for rugby tackling to be banned in schools because of the risk to children playing of sustaining serious injury. I wrote earlier in the year about some of the hazards of school rugby which is now compulsory (according to the SCIC) in 73% of schools in England.

Despite this, there is little official enthusiasm for pursuing a systematic approach to making the game safer, partly because there is a large pro rugby lobby, but also because of the belief that the game instills grit and resilience in children. Indeed Nicky Morgan, when education secretary, talked about how rugby "teaches you to bounce back from defeat, how to respect others and how to work together" and described government support for rugby as being about delivering on the goal of "achieving real social justice by helping children from all backgrounds to fulfil their potential". (No mention of the other [female] 50% of the school population who are often not obliged to participate in compulsory rugby sessions but who have consistently outperformed boys in achieving A*- B grades in PE at A Level and GCSE and who are presumably expected to learn to fulfil their potential by playing other, non-contact sports)

The evidence, however, is clear – there is a 28 per cent risk of injury for a child rugby player over a season of 15 games and it seems odd - at a time when the simplest of school outings requires a battery of risk assessments, and when the preoccupation with defensive health and safety becomes ever greater - that these warnings are ignored. In order to understand one potential consequence, we have only to look across the Atlantic, where a landmark ruling saw over a million dollars in compensation awarded to an ex-American football player’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit, brought after Derek Sheely died as a result of second-impact syndrome (SIS), where the brain swells rapidly and catastrophically after a person suffers a second concussion before symptoms from an earlier one have subsided. The second catastrophic blow may occur minutes, days or weeks after the initial concussion, and even the mildest grade of concussion can lead to SIS. Indeed, the NFL is currently facing lawsuits from several hundred ex-players, accusing the NFL of not warning players and hiding the damages of brain injury.

Most of the damage in rugby is musculoskeletal rather than neurological but the gathering weight of evidence and the mounting number of legal cases in the US being launched by American footballers suggests that we could be storing up a similar time bomb for ourselves.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment