There is no sport harder or more vicious than rugby. Not even America’s National Football League (NFL) can compare with the sheer brute force of the no pads, no helmets, no holds barred Australian sport. There are many countries that play this sport, including Britain and the supposedly effeminate French. Hulking players with muscled necks as thick as medium sized trees. Unlike American football, Australian rugby maintains the purest form of physical competition with few precautions between the body and the hit, or the head and the hard ground. But after indications of serious brain damage for former players and the truly tragic case of one young man’s broken neck, the National Rugby League (NRL) in Australia is looking at the inspiration provided by the NFL as serious injuries become a serious topic in worldwide sports.
Australians will remember Knights player Alex McKinnon for a long time to come. The promising player was headed for stardom in the sport and a possible team captain one day. But a tackle by an opposing player sent him hard into the ground head first. He tried to tuck his chin and take the hit on the shoulder, but he landed squarely on his head, and immediately he knew something was very, very wrong. The video of the hit itself is nauseating to watch as it captures the very moment when McKinnon’s C4 and C5 vertebrae in his neck were fractured. The minutes after the hit as teammates and even opposing players call for help is gut wrenching. McKinnon himself starts yelling, panic obvious in his young face. The promising career of a future great is over.
McKinnon’s case has created an urgency that was lacking in the discussion of safety in the NRL. According to the current rules in the NRL, the throw that potentially disabled McKinnon is a “dangerous throw,” defined as one where the player is likely to hit the ground head first. The league, however, does not provide cover for players who suffer a catastrophic injury and players are excluded from workmen’s compensation. Any player looking to get insurance ridiculously high due to the danger of the sport they play. Add to this situation the fact that rugby players wear minimal protection (usually no pads and only helmets that any NFL player would consider flimsy), and the sport has a serious safety problem on its hands.
This is where the American sport is providing inspiration for Australia’s NRL on the issue of injury prevention. The NFL has been wracked with legal problems over player safety and welfare. Last year alone, the American league paid out a whopping 765 million dollars to the 4500 players with concussion related brain damage from playing football. That has lead to changes in safety precautions, including independent neurologists stationed on the sidelines to evaluate players and concussion “spotters” who watch the game from above the field. Utilizing instant replay, the spotters check replays of hits and the players’ manners afterwards to decide whether a player needs to be evaluated by a trainer on the sidelines.
This is a step in the right direction for the NRL, which has been criticised by experts for its dangerous tackles. One critic, Dr. John Yeoh from Sydney has said that the NRL is inviting calamity by allowing multiple person tackles. He wants tackles involving more than two defenders banned by the league, saying that it poses an “unacceptable” risk to players, especially young players in grade school and high school. His advice to anyone considering playing rugby is to choose another sport. The league has made more rules restricting three defender tackles, but they have stated that at this time it is not considering a ban on two defender tackles.
In the case of Alex McKinnon, new safety measures might not have helped very much. The injury was so traumatic that no amount of sideline spotters would have helped anything. A ban might have helped had it been observed, but in many cases, such bans do not have an effect on actual play. But there are other cases where such measures might have long-term positive effects. The brains of American football players have shown signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy which is known to cause dementia. This condition is caused by repeated concussions and is often called “boxer’s dementia.” The NFL has taken precautions against it and now the NRL in Australia is following the popular American sport’s lead.
Any physical pursuit comes with an amount of risk, but some sports are more risky than others. Rugby is one of the most dangerous and one of the least protected sports in the world. It does not share the same popularity that the United State’s NFL does, but it will hopefully follow its lead on safety precautions. One commenter has said that the NRL players need more than just shoulder pads. Perhaps they need more than helmets and tackle bans, too. There is no doubt that following the NFL provided inspiration is a step in the right direction for the Australian rugby league, but the NRL has a serious injury problem on their hands and there will no doubt be many more steps towards progress in safety.
Opinion By Lydia Webb
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