Removing tackling from rugby in school PE?

The recent debate over tackling in school sport has been lively (and sometimes a little extreme).
I was one of the co-signatories of a letter calling for UK Commissioners, Ministers and educators to do more prevent injuries in children playing school rugby. One of the main proposals is to remove tackling from school PE rugby. [Note – I think future debates need a clearer distinction between voluntary school sport and compulsory PE sport]. I also think there is an opportunity to simply “deselect” rugby, rather than ban it. Schools deselect all types of sports for reasons of safety, cost, and lack of access, lack of qualifies experts. This might temper some of the extreme reactions to a proposed “ban”.

It was great to see that the letter has generated significant media attention. Unless society questions accepted practices from time to time, we are all in trouble. And after hearing from people who want to keep the status quo, they do have a persuasive argument: “sport is good, and all sport has risk.”

But my sentiments lie specifically with school children who are obliged to partake in a sport that has an elevated risk compared to other school sports (I will say more on this later).  As such I am concerned about the school environment and the specific obligations of physical education teachers to protect children.

Many secondary schools in the United Kingdom deliver contact rugby as a compulsory part of the physical education curriculum from age eleven. It is incredible that in 2016, any school in this country would require children to play as part of physical education. Children and parents must be allowed to object because of safety concerns. 

Does rugby build character while it harms bodies?

Rugby players, coaches and fans imbue rugby with various life-changing qualities. One rugby coach on the news recently asked “how will children learn to tackle if they don’t learn when they are young?” My response would be that it is surely possible to live a fulfilled, happy life without tackling. There is nothing essential about tackle rugby.

I also heard a young rugby coach say the sport would be “neutered” without tackling, while a reporter asked if banning tackling was “nanny state”. Many people defend rugby by saying that it builds character. But then so do hundreds of other social activities which do not involve frequent head collisions. So, we should beware of emotive arguments that detract from the evidence. And the evidence is very concerning:

  • The risks of injuries for those aged under 18 years are high and injuries are often serious.
  • The majority of all injuries occur during contact or collision, such as the tackle and the scrum. These injuries which include fractures, ligamentous tears, dislocated shoulders, spinal injuries and head injuries can have short-term, life-long, and life-ending consequences for children.
  • Head injury and concussion is a common injury and repeat concussion is more likely when a player has a history of a previous concussion. A link has been found between repeat concussions and cognitive impairment and an association with depression, memory loss and diminished verbal abilities, as well as longer term problems.
  • Children take longer to recover to normal levels on measures of memory, reaction speed and post-concussive symptoms than adults.

As a policy researcher, we need to consider these negative effects and weigh them against reasons to play tackle rugby in PE at school. These include skill development, fitness, and teamwork. However, given that any number of other sports offer similar outcomes with less risk, and with more opportunity to engage different genders (which is something else which doesn’t occur as much as it could in UK PE), it is time to make some changes.

If a change is made to school PE rugby, some people think it is a slippery slope. A common question with any policy change is “What about other sports?” “What about football?” Well, consider that the United States Soccer Federation now has a policy banning under 11’s from heading the ball, and is reducing headers in training for 11 to 13 year olds. By aiming to reduce concussions, the USSF is acknowledging that brain health of children is more important than being able to hit a ball with their head.

And speaking of other sports, we know that the NFL (American Football) is interested in having a franchise in the UK. What might this expansionist vision mean for the UK. Well, the NFL is already trying to hook young British children on the sport. One NFL player who was in London for a game last year commented:

To see how far the NFL has spread and these kids respond, it’s awesome … I look forward to these opportunities and look forward to teaching these kids something I know. Hopefully, they catch on and like the game” (www.jaguars.com). Players, teams and governing bodies have a vested interest in as many people as possible playing and watching the sport. I accept that professional athletes battering each other in violent sports can be exciting (especially when New Zealand win). But we need to think “at what cost?” Do these sports destroy bodies as much as they build character? There are more and more stories emerging of retired elite players whose lives are blighted by long term injuries. As well as the scientific evidence, we should also listen to these stories more.

In conclusion, we do not need to be neuro-scientists to understand that our brains are precious, sensitive organs. Brains have not evolved to repeatedly receive violent impacts. Let’s make school PE a place where children might learn great things, not a place where they are at an increased risk of injury.

Incidentally, right now there is a review on health and safety in sport in the UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/safety-and-welfare-in-sport-to-undergo-an-independent-review

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