Anyone who has ever watched American football has seen that the players are covered from head to toe with massive amounts of protective padding. American football has always been the most violent sport. Some have said that the padding and helmets created the violence but the reality is that the violence was already there from the outset and the protective gear was developed in response to the huge number of injuries.

Our subject is rugby. In contrast to American football, rugby, at least at one time, seemed almost benign. Because the game is played on the ground, and in relatively closed quarters, as opposed to the American football which allows forward passing, thus opening the game up to violent contact, it was felt that rugby players suffered fewer harsh injuries than their counterparts in US football.

That can no longer be considered the case and, just as in American football, many people, especially parents, are asking whether rugby is too violent for their children to play. People are questioning whether rugby, as it is presently played, is not too violent for adults to play.

We Need Physical Games

Now, no one is suggesting that we replace our beloved sports, however physically challenging they may be, with more benign games such as online casino real money games. But people are wondering if we have reached a critical juncture in our culture in which we have to decide how much violence to allow in games.

Perhaps our youth have been watching American football on television and have adopted the extreme violence of that game. It does seem that rugby has become indefensibly violent and as rugby fans we need to address the problem lest we lose the game at the youth level just as American football is beginning to find parents unwilling to let their boys play football.

Traumatic Injuries

The most common injuries are knee and other leg injuries so the first step would be developing better knee padding. We wonder if it wouldn’t be possible to change tackling rules without vastly altering the nature of the game. The question should be: Do we want rugby to survive as is at all costs or do we want the basic game to survive with some alterations?

Follow the American Lead

In American football, they changed tackling rules to penalize tackling at the neck or head to head tackling. That was in response to the growing awareness of head traumas that not only debilitate players in game and possibly for weeks after but stay with them long after their careers have ended and in many cases result in severe cognitive loss at a very young age.

The experience in US football is that players will commit violent tackles and blocks up to and sometimes including violations of the rules. Penalties are not severe enough in the American game.

Needed: New Tackling Protocol

If we are serious about preserving the rough and tumble and beauty of rugby we need to get tackling under control. Only the severest of rugby purists could criticize a game that features nearly non-stop action and tests players’ endurance and fitness training to the nth degree simply because it has been made less violent than the game they played as kids and prefer even in the face of massive amounts of evidence that the game is at a crossroads.

The “Are You Ready to Play Rugby” movement from 2009 sought to increase safety in rugby and decrease injuries. It has not worked as hoped. As much as we would like to see rugby survive without excessive outside interference it might be time to harshly penalize excessive violence.

Begin at the Top

We can start with a zero tolerance protocol for all tackles above the shoulders. There are simply too many concussions not to mention facial injuries including broken noses, cheekbones, jaws, eye sockets, and lost teeth. The head and neck should be strictly off limits.

American football players used to run into each other even in the second or two after a tackle was made or the “play” ended. The league made such violent acts subject to penalty and they have fallen off to an asymptotic level near zed. Rugby players can learn to avoid contact when the ball has been lateralled back.

The Fields of Eton

At this stage, there is still a lot of parental opposition to making rugby less violent. It is as though parents, especially fathers, see rugby as a sort of trial by fire for their boys. Perhaps we need to look to other ways to give lads a trial by fire that doesn’t involve so much mayhem and so many broken bones.

Boys far more than girls need to run, fight, jostle, tumble, and jump on top of each other. Young boys have been described as akin to bear cubs. This cannot be taken out of boys no matter how we might try.

It could be that our most enduring sports are simply the modern equivalent of this masculine need. A tribe of Native Mexicans, the Tarahumara, have a game in which they simply kick something and run after it for hundreds of kilometers. Kicking and running sports are probably the oldest athletic activities with the possible exception of footraces.

A Ban Suggested and Rejected

Two years ago, almost to the day, a group of doctors suggested, even demanded, a ban on contact rugby, to be replaced everywhere by tag rugby. The backlash was severe to say the least. But everyone also knew that the doctors had a point and in the ensuing two years, it seems that the point is even more present than it was in 2016.

Society has Changed

The phrase boys will be boys once meant that boys needed a free rein to “sow their wild oats” with regard to young women. The young women finally made the point that one boy’s wild oats are their lifelong emotional trauma and boys these days don’t have carte blanche to make unwanted sexual advances.

If our lads can learn that difficult lesson, they surely can learn to play rugby without almost killing each other.