Football isn’t the only sport under siege over concerns about tackling among school-age children. A group of more than 70 British doctors and medical professionals sent an open letter to members of the British government Tuesday, calling for full-contact rugby in schools to be replaced with touch or non-contact rugby.
According to the letter, “many secondary schools in the United Kingdom deliver contact rugby as a compulsory part of the physical education curriculum” starting at the age of 11. The authors of the letter expressed concern that “the majority of all injuries occur during contact or collision, such as the tackle and the scrum.
“These injuries, which include fractures, ligamentous tears, dislocated shoulders, spinal injuries and head injuries can have short-term, life-long, and life-ending consequences for children,” the authors write.
In addition, they note the risk of repeat concussions leading to “longer-term problems,” adding that “children take longer to recover to normal levels on measures of memory, reaction speed and post-concussive symptoms than adults.” They added that studies show “injuries from rugby can result in significant time loss from school.”
Citing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the authors said governments “have a duty to inform children about risks of injury,” but they expressed skepticism about that happening “in the absence of a comprehensive system for injury surveillance and primary prevention.” The UN convention also says “governments have a duty to protect children from risks of injury,” according to the authors, which seems contrary to mandating full-contact rugby in schools.
Adam White, who sits on the board of the England Rugby Football Schools Union, is in support of a ban on full-contact rugby in school, according to The Guardian. However, he finds himself very much in the minority on the board in that regard.
"[Banning contact in school rugby] would be like turkeys voting for Christmas,” he said. “They definitely don’t share that view. In fact, quite the opposite. A lot of the people on the board at the moment are in disbelief about the media attention.”
The Rugby Football Union released a statement in response to the open letter. It reads in part: “Rugby is a fantastic sport for children, bringing many physical and social benefits, including increased confidence, self-esteem and self-discipline, and enjoyable physical exercise as part of a team. Teachers constantly comment on off-pitch behaviour improvements when rugby is introduced in school.”
The union also went on the offensive on Twitter:
Rugby can teach you life long skills. Rugby is Good for You! pic.twitter.com/qb7OS2as5h
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 2, 2016
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 2, 2016
White, meanwhile, explained to The Guardian why he supports a contact ban in schools.
“The kind of approach the RFU has been taking in recent years has been looking at how we manage players that are concussed, whereas players are essentially already injured at that point,” he said. “We need to focus on preventing players from becoming injured in the first place. So absolutely the only way we can do that at the moment is through this ban of contact in school rugby when young people are compelled to participate as part of the national curriculum.”
If this all sounds frighteningly similar to what football is facing in the United States, well...that’s because it is. Dr. Bennet Omalu, the subject of the movie Concussion, said in December that youths under the age of 18 should not be allowed to participate in high-impact contact sports such as football or ice hockey. Dr. Robert Cantu, the author of the 2012 book, “Concussions and Our Kids,” recommends prohibiting children below the age of 14 from playing tackle football.
Just last week, all eight head football coaches in the Ivy League voted unanimously to ban all full-contact practices during the regular season, five years after the conference led the way by installing a limit on the number of full-contact practices permitted in a given week. The ramifications of the conference’s latest move have yet to unfold— the move isn’t even finalized yet, but it’s expected to be, per Ken Belson of the New York Times—a number of other college conferences, high school athletic associations, and states began weighing a similar limitation on full-contact practices following the Ivy League’s move.
When it comes to making fundamental changes to a sport’s rules, there’s often resistance at first, even if those policies are proposed with children’s health in mind. Once the changes go into effect and don’t result in a complete undermining of the game, however, they tend to become gradually accepted over time.
Based on the Rugby Football Union’s response to the open letter, it appears as though those six dozen British medical professionals are facing an uphill battle to get full-contact rugby banned in schools. If the proposal generates enough momentum, though, it’s anyone’s guess as to what could happen in the months and years to come.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.