A Second League of Denial?

Head-on collisions are one of the defining features of American football, and we’ve seen how this “big hit” culture has persisted despite information and research that has shown the dangers of frequent head trauma in sports players. The International Rugby Board and the Rugby Football Union have received a lot of criticism recently over their response, or more accurately, their lack of response to the recent research linking long-term brain trauma to injuries commonly sustained while playing sports. One former rugby player, Barry O’Driscoll, has been very influential in bringing concussion awareness to the IRB and RFU’s agenda. O’Driscoll played full-back for Ireland in the early 1970s. More recently, he has become a well-respected doctor and sat on the IRB’s medical committee for 15 years. His son has also been the team doctor for  both Ireland and the Lions, and his nephew plays center for Ireland.

In 2012, though, Barry O’Driscoll resigned in protest to IRB’s most recent ruling: the Pitch-Side Assessment Test. This “five-minute test” is the current rule for examining players who are suspected to have been concussed during play. Previously, players with a concussion were required to sit out for 3 weeks, which was then reduced to one week. Now, under the PSAT doctors can clear players to return to the game just five minutes after a debilitating head-on collision. O’Driscoll was outraged that IRB and RFU were allowing this to occur, stating that the governing bodies of rugby were doing a disservice to the seriousness of concussions. He believes that if a player is injured enough to require a pitchside assessment by the team doctor, then he should be pulled from the game.

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In an illogical relationship, the regulations for concussion treatment has become more lenient as the size and the power of the rugby players’ bodies and style of play has increased. Even in the last 20 years, the average size of rugby players has increased 10% and they have learned to use their bigger size with big hits and forceful plays. As one journalists from the Guardian puts it, “rugby is no longer a contact sport, it is a collision sport.”

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How players have increased in size. Click here for the interactive version.

O’Driscoll is frustrated that the UK hasn’t accepted the evidence of brain trauma from sports injuries after everything that has happened in the U.S. with CTE and the NFL, who has even offered to share their research with the rugby officials. The biggest problem, though, is that the IRB and RFU remain adamant that one cannot compare American football and rugby, since the head-on collisions in rugby are not intentional or  “emboldened by the illusion of invulnerability that a helmet brings” (BBC). The chief medical officer for RFU, Simon Kemp, said that the number of confirmed CTE cases are very low with only one death. Insisting that football and rugby are very different, Kemp and other members of rugby’s governing body have chosen to conduct and rely on independent research on brain trauma, rather than use the two decades of research that has been compiled in the U.S.(NY Times).

O’Driscoll has another fear that isn’t limited just to modern professional sports injuries. Although the health and safety of professional players are a huge concern, these players have access to medical attention and services that many amateur players do not. Yet, the amateur players are re-creating the big hits and the rough play that they see on TV. This effect became very apparent with the death of a 14-year-old Irish rugby player. Ben Robinson played in a school rugby match in 2011, during which he received three very hard hits to his head. After an assessment from his coach each time, he went back out onto the field. Later on he told his mother that he wasn’t feeling well, then collapsed on the field. He died two days after the game.

Young sports players, especially American football, soccer, and rugby players are learning to sacrifice their body from a very young age. One of O’Driscoll’s biggest concerns with the state of concussion treatment in the professional leagues is the message that it is sending to the audience. Coaches and side-line medics are reinforcing the idea that injuries are just a part of the game and that one must sacrifice his or her mind and body for the sake of the team.

This is exactly what Messner describes in his section on violence done to oneself by sports players. Players are usually eager to get back onto the field and know that they are sacrificing their current and future health for the game. Like the NFL did, the IRB has stated many times that the players are their first concern and that the players know the risks of playing rugby. Does this really matter though? We have seen that players are willing to sacrifice everything to play, perpetuation the normalization of pain and displays of masculinity (Messner 59).

Players know that they are jeopardizing their future health, but “this self-knowledge was in some ways shallow; it was not an expansive sense of his body as a living organism, as a self that connects in health ways with others and with one’s environment. Rather, it was a self-knowledge firmly bounded within an instrumental view of one’s body as a machine, or a took, to be built, disciplined, used (and, if necessary, used up) to get a job done (Messner 58). So, is it the governing body’s responsibility to protect players from themselves?

“It’s like asking a drunk driver if he’s fit to drive”

After Ben Robison died, his father criticized the system, drawing attention to the lack of concussion education, precautions, and treatment in school rugby. Ben was “assessed” all three times he received a blow to the head, but as Mr. Robison says, “asking a kid, ‘Are you O.K.?’. is ridiculous, because of course the boy wants to return to the field. It’s like asking a drunk driver if he’s fit to drive” (NY Times).

O’Driscoll has suggested a number of amendments to the rules of the game. Despite having resigned from IRB medical committee, and being told to “forget the lessons to be taken from the NFL lawsuit” (NY Times), he still remains very involved in advocating for progress regarding head trauma in sports. He believes it’s best to play it safe: if any player is suspected to have a concussion, he or she sits out for a week. No questions. Is it possible that fear of sitting out could clean up the game? Or will players continue their rough play and suffer the consequences on the bench? An even bigger question: when will governing bodies of sport in the UK acknowledge that rugby and soccer can be just as dangerous as American football?



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