It’s no secret that rugby isn’t a safe sport. Estimates indicate that there is a 90% chance a person playing rugby will be injured during a game. Three-quarters of injuries occur during tackle or scrum, with tackles accounting for 66% of all on-the-field concussions. Professional players in their forties have spoken about the permanent health problems they experience due to their continual involvement in the sport, including early-onset dementia that has had a devastating negative impact not just on themselves but also on their wives and children.
Given the dangers that rugby poses to children, many health experts and professional rugby players are calling for traditional rugby to be banned in schools and instead replaced with touch rugby to prevent concussions that could cause children life-long damage. These experts and professional players rightly note that children are protected from other health risks such as smoking and alcohol; rugby, they argue should be treated in the same manner as other potential dangers to a child’s health and well-being. Unfortunately, these individuals face an uphill battle as the UK government and rugby representatives argue the sport “builds character” and assert that “safety is taken seriously” even as children are allowed to be tackled by players twice their size as often as the PE teacher permits.
However, there is hope that this could change in the foreseeable future. World Rugby Medical Director Martin Raftery has publicly stated that rugby laws may need to change in order to prevent concussions in rugby. World Rugby has been reluctant to heed his advice, but it may reconsider given the fact that is being sued by former players who suffer from permanent brain injuries as a direct result of their involvement in the sport. If World Rugby changes its rules, this would automatically change the way in which children play rugby at school, as school rugby rules are automatically set by World Rugby rather than a national governing body. Furthermore, as news of former professional rugby players’ devastating injuries generates negative publicity for World Rugby, the UK government may respond with legislation to protect children from the potentially deadly sport. At the same time, even a single individual can make a big difference. Former professional rugby player Jamie Johnson, who is now the director of co-curriculum and athletics at the International School of Egham, had collision rugby banned at the school, noting that he would not even allow his own children to play the traditional version of the sport and therefore could not encourage other children to play the game in its current form.
Even a single concussion in rugby can have life-altering consequences for children. Short-term problems include cognitive impairment, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, sensitivity to light and noise, and irritability. Some of these problems can turn into long-term issues. Experts note that it can take up to a year for a child to completely heal from a concussion and, unfortunately, many children who suffer a concussion in rugby experience a second or even third one before they have had time to heal from the first, leading to devastating long-term problems such as depression, anxiety, and an inability to concentrate. Children younger than fifteen years of age are particularly vulnerable as a concussion decreases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, leading to what could be life-long disabilities and health issues. Thankfully, concussions in rugby can be avoided in children by altering the rules of the game for schools, banning the sport altogether, or making it an optional activity rather than a required one. However, it will take an uphill battle to persuade schools, the UK government, and World Rugby that such actions are required in order to protect players from devastating long-term health problems.