There was an uproar in the world of rugby recently when 73 health experts submitted an open letter to government ministers in the United Kingdom. In it they called for tackling in schools rugby to be outlawed in order to reduce the risk of injury to children. Prof Steve Cornelius, Head of the Department of Private Law at the University of Pretoria (UP), has entered this debate with an article titled, Should tackles be banned in schools rugby?, which was published on SportsAndTaxation.com earlier this month. This topic is especially relevant in view of World Head Injury Awareness Day, which will be celebrated on 20 March this year.
In a previous article, Prof Cornelius discussed the dangers of concussion in contact sports such as rugby and football and highlighted that, in the past, the National Football League (NFL) in the USA covered up the severe consequences of this type of injury for their athletes. This was exposed in the recent Hollywood movie, Concussion, starring Will Smith as Nigerian immigrant and forensic pathologist, Dr Bennet Omalu, who uncovered the severe, life-threatening head trauma being inflicted on NFL athletes. His research revealed neurological deterioration that is comparable to that seen in patients with Alzheimer's disease, despite the fact that the athletes in question were much younger than the average Alzheimer’s patient. Omalu named the disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy and published his findings in a medical journal. As other athletes faced the same diagnosis, he was able to raise public awareness about the dangers of football-related head trauma.
According to Prof Cornelius, the proposition to outlaw tackling in schools rugby led to a backlash from current and former rugby players and rugby administrators. The Rugby Football Union in England was quick to substantiate the safety measures and rule changes implemented over the years to make rugby safe, and also highlighted the various benefits that playing rugby has for children. However, Prof Cornelius says that it is difficult to deny that rugby players on all levels suffer disproportionately high rates of injury. Professional rugby players are 1 000 times more likely to be injured than miners working under some of the most hazardous circumstances, and rugby injuries can range in severity from mild to life threatening, with head and spinal injuries being of major concern. He also advises that since most injuries occur during collisions on the field during tackles, scrums and rucks, there could be a genuine case to remove these high-risk aspects from the game. Research done in the United Kingdom has shown that rugby players up to the age of 19 years have a 28% risk of getting injured over a 15-match season. Perhaps the answer to this dilemma lies not only in avoiding collisions on the field, but also in the way our young athletes are managed. Studies point out that the likelihood of injury rises as exhaustion and tiredness on the field increase.
To address this, Prof Cornelius suggests that reducing the duration of games and the number of games played per season could also aid in reducing the risk of injury, as fatigue increases not only during the course of a game, but also during the course of a season. This is largely a result of players being continually subjected to repetitive training routines. Prof Cornelius suggests that there is too much emphasis on winning in school sport, and says the emphasis should be on fitness and the development of skills. As a result, players are often mismanaged by coaches and parents and injured players are often allowed to return to competition before the injuries have had sufficient time to heal properly.
Prof Cornelius concludes that while reducing or eliminating collisions in rugby may prevent many injuries, there is a bigger picture that needs to be considered. The nature of the game is not the only risk factor. Children can only be protected if all the risk factors are identified and adequately addressed.
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