Rugby, corporations and risk

In recent years, I have been involved in various efforts to advocate for accurate representations of injury risks. In rugby specifically, challenging erroneous and misleading claims about injury risk is important, so teachers, parents and players can be given accurate and pertinent information about risk. I and my co-authors have applied our analytical skills to the background processes of risk reporting – that messy and complex interplay of research, policy and practice that eventually manifests as risk information. Speaking of which …

In 2016, I was amongst a group of 73 sport scholars, academics, doctors, and public health professionals who signed an open letter arguing that it was necessary to remove the collision elements of the school game so that children play touch and non-contact rugby.

At face value, the open letter focused on a very small part of school sport. We were only arguing for …

  • one rule change …
  • to one sport …
  • at schools …
  • in one country.

The letter attracted a lot of media attention. And rugby governing bodies devoted a significant amount of resources, time and energy which resisted the proposal. These were press releases, media interviews, and resources seemed to be devoted to journal article writing. Now 6 years has passed since the open letter, it is a useful moment to reflect on some of the claims that were made at the time, particularly as brain health/risk has become very prominent in recent years (which I think makes the open letter particularly prescient).

So a few of us have published an article (behind a paywall at the moment) analyzing some of the responses to our open letter. These responses in academic journals are worth examining for how the proposal was framed by others, and the problems that come with such framing. Feel free to read these articles for context if you have access.

In 2016, Tucker et al. published Article 1 “Injury risk and a tackle ban in youth Rugby Union: reviewing the evidence and searching for targeted, effective interventions. A critical review.”

Then in 2017, Quarrie et al. published Article 2 ‘Facts and values: on the acceptability of risks in children’s sport using the example of rugby — a narrative review’.

In our own article, we argue there are a number of omissions, distortions, and misleading remarks which frame the ideas in our original open letter quite differently. These issues include:

Both articles omitted a long list of proposed reasons/motives for making a rule change, including issues around a duty to inform, a duty of care, issues of compulsory participation, and time loss from school.

Both articles omitted any reference to the proposed solution of children playing touch and non-contact rugby. By only mentioning half the solution, they did a disservice to the open letter.

Article 1 seemed to mis-attribute “cited” “terms”, to make a point about the “acceptability” of rugby participation.

Can all childhood injuries even be prevented?

Article 2 suggested that the open letter signatories believed that “all childhood injuries, regardless of origin, are inherently undesirable and should be prevented.” To be clear, I have never met anyone who has ever proposed that “all childhood injuries should be prevented”. As an approach to daily life and risk management, this idea seems nonsensical. So I found it strange, by virtue of signing a letter about school rugby injuries that I was being implicated with this idea. And it propagated an unbecoming trope – that a group of academics were out of touch with reality to the extent that they wanted to “wrap kids in cotton wool” and would never tolerate any injury. The article even included a quote from a former NZ rugby captain:

If you look too closely at the game it’s silly really when you bash the hell out of each other. But it’s fun and if you took the risk out of everything you wouldn’t do anything in your life.” Richie McCaw, former All Blacks captain, 2017, (bold added).

Aside from the possible confirmation bias that comes from quoting a successful rugby player in a medical journal, five years on, this quote can be read more critically. With the brain injury crisis that has enveloped collision sports around the world, the inclusion of McCaw’s quote might lead readers to ask questions like – is it really all or nothing? Is “bashing the hell out of eachother” tolerable for me? Is it tolerable for school children? Especially when the long term effects of rugby injuries for former players are beginning to be understood in more detail now.

McCaw’s quote can also be read in contrast with another former national team player from England. Steve Thompson recently said:

“Would I let my kids play rugby at the moment? No, I wouldn’t. Touch rugby, yes. …. Do I think it’s safe for kids to do tackle rugby? No, I don’t…”.

Of course, the letter writers never wanted to take the risk out of everything. It is intriguing that such a trope would be advanced in an article having ostensibly been through a peer review process. A reading of the 1-page text of the open letter would have shown that touch and non-contact rugby was being proposed as an alternative – a sport that of course has injury risks. Unfortunately, the trope of extreme risk-averseness is presented in the form of a rhetorical question for the signatories:

“… what level of injury to children resulting from participation in rugby would be seen by her [Pollock]and the signatories of the open letter as ‘acceptable’, or even ‘tolerable’. If the answer is ‘none’, there is no debate to have. It follows that if no injuries to children are acceptable, contact rugby for children should be banned, with similar logic presumably resulting in bans for other activities that carry risks of injury and/or death to children such as football, gymnastics, cycling/mountain biking, fairground rides, swimming, climbing trees, hiking, rock climbing, snow sports, sailing, fishing, equestrian and being transported to and from school by car or motorcycle.”

And so significant attention in an academic article is devoted to a rhetorical question about all sorts of common activities such as football, hiking and going to school, with the possibility left hanging in the article that these are activities which the signatories would be against. The effect of all this is the signatories are painted as extreme risk avoiders.

What would the equivalent be at the other end of the risk spectrum? I imagine it would be similar to a school rugby promoter being accused of believing that “any” sort of high-risk behaviour should be compulsory for school children. So compulsory unaided rock climbing, compulsory jousting, compulsory bare-knuckle boxing, or whatever other high-risk activity they want to administer. Of course, these suggestions are fanciful, and I would not offer these in an academic discussion as plausible equivalents to the various risks of rugby.

Relatedly, we contest the veracity of the claim that there is a “‘dominant paradigm’ among those working in childhood injury prevention that ‘all childhood injuries, irrespective of origin, are unacceptable’.” Instead we suggest the references supposedly used to support that argument say the opposite – that “injuries can be ‘prevented or controlled’ (italics added) through either primary, secondary, or tertiary prevention – ‘preventing new injuries, reducing the severity of injuries, or decreasing the frequency and severity of disability after an injury’”. Again, the accusations levied in the direction of the open letter signatories do not seem to hold water.

On sociology

Article 2 claimed ‘The values of the signatories of the open letter, most of whom are scholars of sociology, rather than injury prevention or public health, are relevant to what level of risk they believe is acceptable in rugby’. We did a count ourselves on this, and even being generous towards ‘sociology’ in cases of multi-disciplinarity, only 34 out of 73 were predominantly ‘scholars of sociology’. Does 34 out of 73 count as most? No, we don’t think so.

We wonder how this claim was created. It also buys into the trope of positioning the signatories as particularly unknowledgeable about the topic (despite the signatories ironically being accused of deploying the dominant paradigm of injury prevention moments earlier). This frames the letter writers as inexpert in the subject, which would certainly be a tactic deployed by those with an interest in defending the status quo of rugby tackling in schools. In various media, attacking the legitimacy of the signatories seemed to be a popular technique when the letter was first published.

And speaking of sociology, despite not accounting for ‘most’ of the signatories, scholars of sociology focus on a range of closely-related themes – risk, danger, education, policy, power, and control across a wide range of settings and cultures. Sociologists often need to be interdisciplinary, often traverse a wide range of social problems, including different types of risks, and often view social practices holistically. Since the open letter intersected with health, education, safe-guarding, physical education and physical activity, it would seem that sociologists are well placed to contribute. In any case, the 73 signatories of the letter, whatever their background or professional discipline, would have a wide variety of beliefs about all sorts of risks. For example, sociology can be a risky thing to do itself!

Other motives? Or omitted motives?

Article 2 uses an example of one signatory, who once remarked (in a different setting, in a different context), of his apparent contempt for ‘men’s team sports’. This remark was used as the basis to claim that ‘If reasons other than those concerning player welfare were a motive for the authors of the open letter calling for a ban on contact in schools’ rugby, then stating those reasons in the letter would have helped clarify the debate’. But when the article in question had already omitted discussion of many ‘motives’ which were explicitly emphasised in the open letter (including issues of compulsion, consent, and the duty to protect children), this doesn’t quite seem like fair play. This echoes a trope of the letter writers as have ulterior motives. Sure, critical analysis of motives is a good thing, but the clearly stated motives (in paragraphs 3, 4, 6 and 7 from the open letter) are entirely ignored in favour of an insinuation of “other reasons” being motives. Advocacy is certainly made more difficult when the original issues raised are not considered at all in responses, and further, when the issues raised are conflated with other matters entirely.

Competing and confounding interests

Speaking of declaring ‘other reasons and motives’, the logical extension of such a suggestion would become quickly unmanageable and probably uncomfortable for the declarers. For example, employees of World Rugby or England Rugby (for example) would need to disclose their specific financial interests at every instance of advocacy as well as all the other benefits they have received through their connection with the sport, as this would surely ‘motivate’ their involvement. I look forward to any author beginning such transparent declaration to ‘clarify the debate’.

Cheekily, and taking declarations to their logical extreme, I wonder if “confounding interests” would be useful to disclose too. For example, I signed the open letter and:

I played collision sports for 7 years.

My support of both the All Blacks and Buffalo Bills for has spanned two millennia.

I own a rugby ball.

Do these factors make the proposal more palatable now that I’ve declared my interests? Or should I not have declared any of this? It certainly grates against a narrative that a signatory supposedly doesn’t like rugby.

Distortions of school decision making  

Article 1 claimed that “effective (risk management) interventions must, by definition, be realistic and obtain the support of the major stakeholders within the specific target population”. However, this framing doesn’t work in the UK school setting. If an activity involving an external stakeholder is deemed to be too injurious, then it would not matter whether a ‘major stakeholder’ supports its removal. That’s a decision for the school and education leaders.

Article 1 also frames tackling in school rugby as essential, by claiming that “the danger then, of removing the tackle from compulsory rugby in schools as has been proposed, is that it would deny the need and opportunity to many young players to begin learning a skill set …“. Is there any evidence that shows tackling needs to be learnt by school children? This claim seems more ideological than evidenced based. It is entangled with corporate interests, rather than a pedagogical justification. An imperative to learn to tackle would cement rugby as an essential part of schooling, and would be useful for the corporations who would be detrimentally affected by the removal of tackling from schools.

This point is worthy of a bit more exploration. Which activities for children should we endorse as children “needing” to learn at school? Swimming? Cycling? Self defense? Throwing? Catching? Where does tackling feature in a hierarchy of essential skills to learn?

Incredibly, article 1 concludes by claiming that the proposal “may also lead to unintended consequences such as an increase in the risk of injury later in participation”. I would have thought that any new adult player later in life would be looked after by rugby clubs they join to ensure they are well prepared before being placed in tackle situations. Isn’t progression an important part of skill development, after all?

Corporate interests in rugby research

What I found interesting is that both articles included declarations of ‘competing interests’ from various authors connected to various rugby governing bodies. Many of the claims and distortions mentioned above seem to favour the interests of rugby organisations. We found no distortions and claims in either article that worked against the interests of rugby organisations. Did we not look hard enough? Was this our bias at work? It would be interesting to see if anyone can find any such distortions.

There was one quote, in article 1, which read – “This proposal does, however, deserve substantial scrutiny for the possibility that it may be an effective (albeit extreme) means to improve player welfare…” (bold added). Despite this quote, not only was the potential effectiveness not investigated, the proposed solution of touch and non-contact rugby was not even mentioned. Oh well, so much for the “substantial scrutiny”.

Was the proposal to remove tackling ever really “extreme”?

A recent survey in the UK found more than half of respondents favoured ‘a ban on tackling at Under-14 (65%), Under-16 (58%) and Under-18 (55%) level.’ So even if removing tackling for children (at schools) used to be an ‘extreme’ idea, it’s not anymore.

How influential were corporate interests in all this? Well, there is certainly an entanglement of corporate rugby interests and defense of the status quo. Whether this framing (as we discuss in the article) was accidental or unconscious is a matter for the writers. We assume that no one would try to purposefully mislead readers. I think we should assume that people in professional positions are making genuine attempts to make the world a better place. But equally, there’s a reason why competing interests sections exist. Whether through unconscious drift, or by accident, or both, I think a range of pressures, assumptions, and ways-of-being can affect the messages that are produced, no matter how much science, objectivity, and integrity is espoused. And so, while unaffiliated advocates can be easy targets for claims of bias and skewed opinions, I suspect it can work both ways.

There is nothing sacred about school sport policies. Sports are added to schools, and removed, for all sorts of reasons. For rugby governing bodies, I suspect the removal of tackling from schools would be unbearable (even as a short term, localised, comparative intervention).

Joe Piggin

After Covid, how much rugby should children play?

When this Covid pandemic finishes, you might be thinking about which sports will be best for your child. Well, rugby is clearly enjoyable for many people, and is helpful for fitness and socializing (though of course most other children’s sport have similar benefits). Rugby, apparently, has also been “building character since 1823“, according to the global governing body.

But if you are thinking about encouraging your child to play rugby, do consider this new research which shows an alarming rate of concussion (brain trauma / brain injury) in school students who play rugby. In a study of 416 New Zealand high school rugby players, the findings indicated that 69% of players had sustained a suspected concussionduring their playing of the sport at school. Did you read that properly? 69%? Really? Does that seem high?

You may be shocked at these stats. And if you’re a staunch rugby defender, you may be very skeptical about this research. Let’s go through some potential issues:

You might think it was done by biased researchers with an anti-rugby, anti-risk agenda. But, actually, of the 8 researchers involved, 4 work for New Zealand Rugby, including the “lead” researcher. The other 4 researchers work for various universities.

You might think the children are exaggerating when reporting their brain injuries. But actually, we can infer the number of concussions could be even higher than the reported figure, for two reasons. First, the researchers state: “NZ Rugby has a mandated 21 or 23-day stand-down period if a player has been removed for a suspected concussion depending on their age. While this policy prevents players with a suspected concussion from returning which is an important safety consideration, it may also have the detrimental side effect of increasing nondisclosure in players.”
Second, the researchers state “the responses of the current sample may not include the characteristics of players who have withdrawn from rugby participation due to concussions or the risk of possible concussions.” So for anyone who thinks the 69% is overstating the issue, it might reasonably be that 69% is an understatement.

You might think the “suspected” concussions reported by the participants weren’t always diagnosed by a doctor – it was sometimes only the children’s views about specific concussion symptoms. Well, 31% of participants did receive a medical diagnosis of concussion, which is still very high, right? So should we give the benefit of the doubt to the other children and adolescents who participated in the research? We may as well, right?

You might be angry about this perceived attack on one of the great sports in [insert your country here : ) ]. If so, have a chat to children who you know and see what they think about this research.

You might not be able to access the article because you’re not at a university and it’s behind a paywall. If that’s the case, you could email the researchers to inquire about a free copy! Or pay the journal £34 to get access to the article! Or lobby the government that you as a (probable) tax payer, deserve access to research conducted on school children by sports organisations and universities!

To conclude …

Should we agree that no matter how fun and “character building” an activity is, if it imposes a 69% concussion rate risk during a student’s schooling, there should be some serious reviews? If you disagree, what’s your “acceptable risk”? Is 50% of children having a traumatic brain injury acceptable? Or 49%? I wonder what percentage of the children themselves think is tolerable when it come to traumatic brain injury in school sport.

Joe P

An urgent call for clarity regarding England Rugby’s injury claims – update

A couple of weeks ago, Prof Alan Bairner and I wrote an analysis of England Rugby’s false and misleading injury rate claims. Here is the link:

I can now report that England Rugby responded. Here is the initial response – with names redacted:

Dear Joe, 

Thank you very much for your email and for bringing this to attention.

The RFU takes player safety extremely seriously. I would like to take the opportunity to respond to your email and to you and Professor Bairner on your editorial (An urgent call for clarity regarding England Rugby’s injury claims). 

We acknowledge that an editing error was made in the wording used as part of our Rugby Safe booklet, which was published two years ago. It should have read: There is no evidence to show that rugby poses a specifically greater risk of catastrophic injury than other sports and other activities to align with the graphic used directly after it on page eight (screengrab attached). This was a mistake as part of the publishing process.

We want to ensure all our resources include accurate information, so will be undertaking the following:

  • Amending the 2015 Rugby Safe booklet to remove the inaccurate wording with immediate effect (the 2015 document has already been removed from our website)
  • Publishing an updated Rugby Safe booklet next season using the latest research and findings

The RFU has apologised to Colin Fuller for the error. It was not our intention to mislead. We will continue our ongoing commitment and work to ensure player welfare is central to all that we do.
Yours sincerely,

###### #####


##### ####

For more see:

Piggin, J. & Bairner, A. (2017) An urgent call for clarity regarding England Rugby’s injury claims. Nordic Sport Science Forum

Rugby, rules and rhetoric

As I once said “We are all discourse analysts. Whether we are reading, debating or writing policy we are attempting to understand the political dynamics at play in its construction and predict the ramifications of its implementation.”

Here I look back on the previous year and examine how the rugby world faced two major public furores; first an open letter calling for the removal of rugby in schools, and second, a major reworking of the rules of rugby. The benefit of hindsight helps us a lot here. I take this press release and consider it in the context of what subsequently occurred.

So, the day after an (admittedly provocative) open letter calling for a ban on tackle rugby in school sport was released (March 1), World Rugby released this statement (March 2). The fact World Rugby’s response came out very quickly after the letter is noteworthy. This was over 1,000 words crafted to reassure the public, via the media and twitter, that there was no problem to be concerned about. Below I respond to some extracts from the press release:

WR: “As a global governing body, our responsibility is to minimise the risk in our sport and we continue to be committed to making rugby as safe and enjoyable as possible for all ages through education and promotion of correct preparation and playing techniques, prevention strategies and minimising and managing the risks associated with one of the world’s fastest-growing team sports.”

JP: “Minimising risk” and “as safe as possible” are relative terms. They are purposefully vague, since it would be unthinkable for “one of the world’s fastest growing team sports” to remove tackling.

WR:“We are leading the agenda in sport …”

JP: We should be wary of any organisation that wants to grow its sport around the world AND lead the agenda of child safety, especially in schools. School safety should be the responsibility of schools.

WR: “Never have players, medics and management been so aware of the risks of injury …”

JP: Until later that year, as it would turn out, when World Rugby would “aim to change culture in the sport to ensure that the head is a no-go area”.

WR: “Results from the World Rugby Sportswise Survey (2015) revealed …”

JP: The SportsWise survey was eventually retracted.

WR: “84 per cent of parents believing sufficient measures are taken by schools and sports clubs to protect children against injury during sports and activity.”

JP: Given that World Rugby has made significant changes to the conception of “the head”, it seems 84% of parents were wrong. Perhaps they had not been informed properly.

WR: “It is true that there is an element of risk in everything that we do in life …”

JP: This statement elides the real and measurable risk from playing collision sports.

WR: “Compared with other sports and activities, rugby has a relatively low injury severity rate despite being known for its physicality.” [note – the term “severity” was added after it was pointed out to World Rugby that there earlier claim was erroneous and misleading.]

JP: Well this is sort of true and sort of false. It’s true when looking at the Australian sport injury data, but false when considering other research on injury risk. A variety of research published in the BJSM notes a high rate of severe injuries.

WR: “However, the call for a ban on tackle rugby is not based on evidence nor does it add to our understanding of the important issues surrounding player welfare.”

JP: Given that World Rugby had to retract their evidence about risk in rugby and change their press release, I would encourage a more humble view about what “evidence-based” means. Secondly, I suspect that the letter contributed in part at least to the reformulation of rugby’s treatment of the head, so I suspect that it did add to player welfare.

WR: “This is a vocal minority that doesn’t reflect the views of millions of people who embrace the wonderful game …”

JP: Rates of concussion are increasing, and I suspect World Rugby had to act in order to preserve either a decrease in popularity of young people playing rugby, or the threat of litigation.

WR: “As the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) stated within a 2015 policy statement, although removing tackling would reduce the risk of injuries to players, it would fundamentally change the sport.”

JP: Hmmm, now World Rugby say that there is evidence that that removing tackling would decrease the risk, albeit evidence from another policy statement.

WR: “… this uninformed call for a ban.”

JP: It depends what you mean by “uninformed”. I suspect the other signatories of the letter just wanted children to be safer at school, and not made to forcibly take part in high impact collision sports.

WR: “As parents we believe that the safeguards are in place and will continue to improve and that the character and benefits of the game far outweigh the relatively low risk of injury.”

JP: Sadly World Rugby did not completely change their press release to remove all the erroneous material. Perhaps I will send them an email.


For more, see

Piggin, J. & Pollock, A. (2016) World Rugby’s erroneous and misleading representation of Australian sports’ injury statistics. British Journal of Sports Medicine, [Online First] doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-096406


World Rugby’s erroneous sport injury statistics

Yes, all sport has an element of risk, but if there is one thing that is non-negotiable, it is the provision of accurate injury statistics to the public. Unfortunately, this document called the World Rugby Sportswise Survey has been in the public domain for nearly a year. Even with a cursory viewing of the “Australia” graph, something seems incorrect:

(Note: As of 16 September 2016, World Rugby has claimed to retract this but a simple web search reveals it is still available various places online). To be clear, the data in the Australia graph above is incorrect. The statement that “compared with other sports and activities, rugby has a relatively low injury rate …” is also incorrect. For more see

When it becomes known that erroneous data are publicised about risk in sport, the publishers should clearly retract them and display the correct data. The original, more valid Australian government data is below:
You can see that the “participation based” data shows rugby is the 4th most injurious sport, per 100,000 participants.

Very problematic claims about injuries manifest elsewhere. For example, the publishers of “Rugby Safe” in England should make some corrections to their document as well. See the very problematic quote below:


There is actually a lot of evidence. For example, here is a screenshot of an academic article by CW Fuller which totally contradicts CW Fuller:


It is therefore inappropriate for this comment to appear in a document discussing safety.

Let’s hope the public can be provided with accurate statistics by organisations with significant marketing power, so parents and children are better informed about risk in various sports. It is no longer enough to dismiss safety concerns by saying that “everything has risk”. When children are made to play particular sports at school, they and their parents should have a good understanding of the risk involved.

This problem of falsely representing injury risk has occurred recently in another collision sport – the NFL:

Joe Piggin