Do you love rugby more than you love your children?
The question may seem a little light-hearted and maybe mischievous at first but when you discover it is being asked by the one of the leading voices in sports medicine and specifically a respected figure in the ongoing debate about the dangers of concussion, it immediately takes on a more serious tone.
That person is Dr Bennet Omalu, the world-renowned forensic pathologist and neuropathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – the degenerative disease found in those people with a history of brain trauma and which continues to cast a shadow over all contact sports.
Omalu has not been far from the headlines since he published his initial findings in 2005 and he earned further fame a couple of years ago when his story and his battle for credibility was given the Hollywood treatment in the film Concussion.
He returned to centre stage again earlier this month by suggesting that parents who let their children play American Football were guilty of child abuse due to the dangers that they were exposing their kids to by allowing them to play the sport.
But American Football is not the only sport in his sights with rugby considered just as harmful and parents of young rugby players just as guilty of neglect.
“The big six are rugby, (American) football, boxing, ice hockey, mixed martial arts and wrestling,” he told in this recent interview. “If your child plays any of these games, even for one season, there is a 100 per cent risk of exposure to permanent brain damage."
He continued: “The big question in 2017, knowing what we know today, is why would we continue to intentionally damage the brains of our children?"
“We would not let a child smoke a cigarette but we would rather send a child to the field of rugby or football to suffer a concussion of the brain. What’s more dangerous? A cigarette or a concussion of the brain?”
“Each and every parent must ask themselves, ‘do I love rugby more than I love my child?’ Pull your child out”.
Omalu argues that non-contact sports not only provide everything rugby offers but also, and crucially as far as he is concerned, preserve your child’s intelligence.
He also believes contact sports should be outlawed until the individual is legally old enough to make their own informed decision about participation – and he is not the only medical expert to have warned of the long-term impact of concussion on the lives of young people.
A study released last year detailed how childhood concussion has been linked to health and social problems in later life. While similar studies in the United States have identified that American Football players who began playing the tackle version of the sport before the age of 12 were more likely to develop memory and thinking problems later in life.
It is certainly powerful and thought-provoking stuff as both a coach and a parent.
Of course, some will argue that many aspects of life come with an element of risk especially if you are an active child. Whether it is riding a bike, climbing a tree or running around a school playground – there is always the chance of an accident and it is clearly important amid fears of growing child obesity that kids remain active.
However, there can be no getting away from the fact that rugby union is a physically demanding sport that brings with it some risk that must be monitored and managed at all levels of the game – and nowhere is that more important than at youth level with children and adolescents more susceptible to concussion.
World Rugby are spearheading the education and awareness efforts on a global scale while in England the RFU’s RugbySafe programme is dedicated to player safety and wellbeing at all levels of the game.
The RFU’s commitment to ‘ensure maximum possible safety’ includes a structured approach to youth rugby and the ‘gradual’ introduction of the physical and technical elements of the game.
At present in England, tackling is introduced at Under 9 allowing for technique to be mastered before the size and speed of the players becomes a barrier to development of skill and confidence.
As coaches and referees, it is incredibly important that we teach our youngsters the safest way to enjoy our game but it is also imperative that we educate ourselves about the player welfare issues and share that knowledge with players and parents.
With a new northern hemisphere season almost upon us, it would be a great time to familiarise or revisit the specific guidelines regarding concussion no matter what age of player you work with.
For example, did you know that you do not have to hit your head to suffer a concussion? Did you know that feeling sleepy is one symptom? Or did you know that ‘inappropriate’ emotions, whether laughing or crying, are also possible tell-tale signs?
Whatever you think you know, I urge you to utilise one of the many helpful resources available online like the new RFU’s Headcase module to ensure you are doing everything you can to protect your players and the reputation of the sport.
It is equally important parents and teachers are fully aware of the danger signs because even the most attentive coach is going to find it difficult to keep a close eye on every mini under his control during a session – and he or she will find it impossible to do so when the players go home or go back to school where symptoms may first surface.
Only through working together can we make sure that we Recognise the signs and symptoms, that we Remove the injured player from the game, that they Recover fully before returning to sport and that they Return only after following a Graduated Return to Play.
In the face of such criticism that jeopardises the future of the sport in its current form, it is increasingly important to remember both the physical and social benefits offered by rugby union.
Regular exercise promotes strength, speed, endurance, flexibility and general fitness while rugby union’s specific ‘core values’ include transferable skills that will serve young people well throughout their life – not just during their playing careers.
These include the need for discipline both on the field, where the intense physicality and an often highly-charged atmosphere demands self-control and the ability to think clearly and correctly under immense pressure, and also off the field in terms of commitment to a structured training programme.
In the battle for the interest and loyalty of young athletes and their parents, rugby union also possesses two other trump cards in the form of the sportsmanship expected when it comes to your opposition and the respect that is demanded for the officials and the Laws.
The Rugby Football Union quite rightly highlights the improvement in terms of confidence and self-esteem noted in young players, both in and out of school, but they are not the only ones aware of the sport’s power to benefit society.
The impact of Premiership Rugby’s Hitz programme, an award winning social change initiative aimed at teenagers not in education or employment and delivered by England’s leading clubs, has rightfully been well documented.
Elsewhere, the RFU’s Try for Change programme, the Beyond Rugby community and the Dallaglio RugbyWorks charity are just three other examples of organisations using rugby union and its core values to benefit young people and instigate positive social change.
Try telling the many youngsters to have benefited from such schemes, and millions of others who have played and enjoyed the game, that rugby is not a fantastic game for children.