The danger of rugby

Tomorrow (Sunday) is the day when the Super Bowl is played, when much of America gathers around their TVs to watch the game and/or the commercials and/or the halftime show. I will not be among them, having sworn off the game because of the accumulating evidence of the serious brain damage that the players are risking. I think that while adults can choose to take such risks, it is immoral for schools and universities to encourage young people to do so and they should remove it from the list of activities.

I used to think that rugby was safer because only the ball carrier can be tackled, making the number of collisions per player per game fewer. Also, that sport does not have the ‘protective’ gear that American football has that makes players think that they are less likely to get injured and thus paradoxically increases risks by encouraging them to make bone-jarring tackles. The padding and helmet may prevent the breaking of bones but does not prevent the whiplash effects on the head and neck that occurs every time one is tackled

But it seems that I should not have been so sanguine about rugby being safer. In France four players, two of them professionals, died within a period of eight months, which is an astoundingly high number. It is being attributed to the fact that players are getting bigger, stronger, and faster leading to more high impact tackles. Another problem is that fans seem to want to see crashing tackles and players and teams are responding to it. A neuroscientist in the linked video above says that the rugby injuries they see are like those in car accidents before seatbelts and airbags were introduced.

There are calls to make rugby safer by trying to encourage movement of the ball and placing restrictions on tackling. Meetings are being convened by rugby authorities to find out what might be done. In soccer, one could ban heading the ball, which is the leading source of brain damage, and maybe similar restrictions could be envisaged for rugby.

I think there is only so much that can be done in ‘gladiator sports’ like American football and rugby where collisions seem to be an integral part of the game, not incidental like in basketball. One can only hope that over time, they will acquire the same stigma as boxing and people will not want to watch it as much, though the rise in popularity of mixed-martial arts is not encouraging. It seems like there are enough people who get pleasure in watching people batter each other and these sports are a way of sanitizing that desire.


  1. says

    It’s hard to watch the rise of MMA and not realize that some people just like to sit in a comfy chair and watch other people beat eachother bloody. There’s a lot of toxic masculinity and gender roles to unpack, there, but it’s also undeniable that some gladiators see that as their role, and enjoy it. It’s certainly a workout for “informed consent” laws and I think that at a minimum, combat sports should be keeping purses for contestants into which a portion of their earnings are paid, against the day when they are no longer earners or able to take care of themselves.

  2. Roj Blake says

    It is being attributed to the fact that players are getting bigger, stronger, and faster leading to more high impact tackles.

    This has become an enormous problem in New Zealand under age and school rugby. Quite of few of the Pasifika lads (Tongan in particular) have far heavier and more muscled bodies than their Maori and Pakeha opponents. It is a struggle to maintain age groups and keep the smaller boys playing against their much stronger opponents. While the Pasifika boy may be bigger and stronger, his age means his skill level still matches his age.

  3. lorn says

    A whole lot of people are attracted to watching blood sports. Competitions where people are routinely bloodied, sometimes maimed, and more rarely are crippled or die.

    Young people like the idea of competition that put their bodies on the line.

    The very idea of maleness is strongly associated in society with the risk of grievous bodily injury. So much so that teenage masculinity is to large extent identified with brainless taking on of unnecessary and unreasonable risk.

    This is not a statement of approval or easy acceptance. It is an observation of the enduring situation. It is simple to think of ways to trim around the edges but this is hard-wired into a whole lot of brains. I watched a six-year-old, entirely without prompting or encouragement, throw himself off a roof onto a far too small pile of leaves. He was lucky. He got away with a lost tooth, bloody nose, and a few scrapes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *