It’s the end of summer and the rugby season has just started. Which means that school matches will shortly resume and parents will be reacquainting themselves with their local accident and emergency department!
I talk from experience – I was a rugby mum with a fanatical rugby husband. And while he encouraged the boys I just watched with increasing anxiety. I am all for encouraging team sports but when it comes to rugby my verdict is out. Too many long hours in A & E waiting for X Ray results, and then plaster casts and crutches and various bits of metal now living inside my son’s limbs have sent out warning bells about just how safe is this sport — especially for children.
Rugby is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world and every year tens of thousands of players are injured in England and arrive at A&E with spinal cord injuries, fractures, ligament tears, and concussion.
Thankfully my boys no longer play. But I was reminded again this weekend of the dangers of these sports when I watched on Netflix the film Concussion with Will Smith. He plays a Nigerian born pathologist who brought the issue of brain damage in retired NFL players to the forefront. It is based on a true-life story which began in 2002 when Omalu, the pathologist who was with the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was assigned to perform an autopsy on the body of Mike Webster. He was known as “Iron Mike,” Webster and was a beloved former Pro Bowler with Pittsburgh Steelers, the anchor of a front line that helped the team win four Super Bowls. However, his mental health deteriorated to the point where he was ranting at strangers and zapping himself with a Taser gun, until his death from a heart attack at age 50.
When Omalu dissected Webster’s brain he discovered the presence of tau proteins, which when accumulated, impair moods and cognitive function. It is similar to some findings in the brains of deceased boxers. Omalu coined the condition “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” or CTE. He then submitted a paper to the prestigious medical journal Neurosurgery , explaining that he believed that Webster’s troubles were the result of repeated head blows from his playing career. I think you can guess the rest. It was a good movie.
Omalu is not alone with his concerns about head injuries. Back in March more than 70 doctors and academics in the UK called for a ban on tackling in rugby matches played in UK and Irish schools. In an open letter to ministers, they said that injuries from this “high-impact collision sport” could have lifelong consequences for children. They wanted schools to promote non-contact rugby.
Professor Allyson Pollock, of Queen Mary University of London agrees. She is also a former Rugby mum and believes that youngsters are regularly harmed playing the sport and she feels that the levels of injury have not been properly monitored.
Her book ‘Tackling Rugby: What Every Parent Should Know’ prompted by the injury of her elder son, Hamish, who sustained concussion and a broken cheekbone while playing schoolboy rugby, investigates the risks of the game. She was so concerned by her findings that she stopped her younger boy, Hector, from playing contact rugby.
“Given that children are more susceptible to injuries such as concussion and often take longer to fully recover, the government’s plan to increase competitive sport is worrying,” said Prof Pollock.
Her thoughts are echoed by Michael Carter, a paediatric neurosurgeon at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children. He wrote earlier this year in the BMJ that schools encouraged aggressive play and often made children play on when they were injured. He said a quick check with his neurosurgical colleagues had revealed they had treated 20 youngsters for brain damage related to rugby in the past decade.
“Schools, coaches, and parents all contribute to a tribal, gladiatorial culture that encourages excessive aggression, suppresses injury reporting, and encourages players to carry on when injured,” he said.
I personally can’t see rugby tackling being abolished but I would certainly welcome more diligence when it comes to safety in the game. And on the plus side I have seen an increase in the number of schools now asking us to provide them with sports first aid training courses. Which means that coaches and sports teachers are now much more aware of what can happen and the damage that can be caused if injuries are not dealt with effectively and immediately.
For more information about Safe and Sound Sports First Aid Training go to: http://www.safeandsound.uk.net/product/1-day-emergency-first-aid-at-work-sports-injuries/