Is school rugby really ‘state-sponsored violence’?
When Professor Allyson Pollock’s son was seriously injured playing, she began studying the sport’s safety
Allyson Pollock will always remember the Wednesday afternoon that she received a call informing her that her eldest son, Hamish, 14, had been injured playing rugby at school. “You feel your heart stopping and you feel completely sick,’’ she says, her voice hushed with emotion, even ten years later. “You feel fear, dread, anxiety, guilt. It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a parent.’’
She rushed to the hospital and saw her son lying in bed: “This little boy. Just mute, white, drawn, pale, silent, still. His face was completely disfigured and deformed because he’d had his cheekbone smashed and his eye was hanging down. He couldn’t eat or drink except through a straw. He was in a huge amount of pain and he had these black panda eyes within a few hours.”
Pollock felt helpless, distraught, even guilty — as would any parent. But as professor of public health research and policy at Queen Mary, University of London (previously at the University of Edinburgh), her interest in the subject of children’s safety on a rugby pitch was professional as well as personal. A decade-long investigation last year led to the publication of her book, Tackling Rugby, What Every Parent Should Know.
Now the British Medical Journal has published a report by Pollock and her colleagues criticising the government for its proposal to increase the prominence of rugby in schools. The report states that 12 per cent of children (one in eight) suffer injuries on the rugby field during the season.
Pollock calls the implementation from on high of rugby union and rugby league “state-sponsored violence’’. “We shouldn’t call them contact sports. They’re collision sports,’’ Pollock says. “And they result in very high rates of injury. This idea of the government imposing dangerous sports into the curriculum, top down, with no discussion or information — no injury prevention strategy — is quite extraordinary to me.
“These are the five big corporate sports: football, hockey, tennis, rugby union, rugby league, where the government sees enormous commercial advantage. We’ve got big business, big investors, big sponsors behind this. It’s like putting McDonald’s in charge of the canteen. Or Coca-Cola in charge of the tuck stall.’’
And yet parents of rugby-playing children are torn. The first time I washed my 13-year old son’s muddy rugby kit, I felt reassured that he was enjoying an idyllic childhood. I tried to disregard his frequent tales of a friend’s dislocated shoulder, bloody nose or broken leg on the pitch. You learn to quash your shock at the level of violence and injury. No one wants to be a spoilsport. Rugby is a revered British tradition — most of us humbly assume the sporting and school authorities know best.
One can imagine that it takes enormous courage, be you a mother, a medical professional, or both, to criticise this hallowed sporting tradition. I can’t imagine suggesting to my son’s school that I don’t want him to play rugby. I’m sure I’d be a laughing stock. As it is, every time Pollock ventures to suggest that the risk of brain injury to our 14-year-olds should not be an accepted part of school life, she receives savage abuse on Twitter.
“There’s incredible societal pressure on parents not to complain,” she says. “It’s an elite, middle-class sport in England, played in public schools, so you know it’s good for children. People are under great pressure not to question it.”
Certainly, I feel this — as if I’d only be questioning the decision of the school, of decades of venerable British tradition, out of ignorance. And yet, as Pollock says, “If your child is going on a school trip, if they came off the side of a mountain with the same rate of injuries that they’re coming off the rugby pitch on Saturdays, parents would be up in arms. So why is it acceptable that children have these catastrophic injuries and you think it’s all part of play?”
So should we ban rugby in schools? Absolutely not, says Pollock, but she does believe fervently that “in rugby the tackle is the dangerous element. Remove it till they’re 18 and leave school.” She’s aware that the rugby authorities “will howl and scream, ‘How do we get new people into the professional game?’ ”, but says: “For all the tens of thousands of children playing, only one or two will ever become professional players. Their day of glory is not worth a young boy having spinal injuries.”
Despite her personal interest, one could hardly accuse Pollock of being overemotional. She diligently researched her subject for more than ten years. “I was watching all these children being injured, including my son. I thought, ‘I’m a public health physician. We start from the premise that most injuries are avoidable. So what’s going on?’ ”
She collected rugby injury data from studies worldwide. In the UK she was shocked at the “enormous resistance” to her enquiries (“You expect people to be rational”). She persevered: “I felt it was really important that parents have the information.”
The prevailing assumption is that we parents know the risks of our children playing rugby and tacitly agree to them, but as Pollock says, the rugby unions don’t publish the data on the types of injury and the frequency. The potential consequences of the game are brought home to us only when we read with utter horror about the fate of youngsters such as Benjamin Robinson, 14, from County Antrim. Robinson was treated three times for blows to the head while playing rugby union for his school and sent back to the field on each occasion. He collapsed and later died in hospital.
Any parental objection is made harder because of resistance from the children. “Children always think they’re invincible,” says Pollock. “They think: ‘I know the risks. I’m prepared to take those risks.’ Actually, children don’t know the risks because they’ve never had to live with injury or disability. And many parents have never had to live with injury or disability for their children. When those risks hit them, it can change their lives completely.”
Yet if your child’s school plays rugby, it’s usually compulsory. So most of us cross our fingers and selfishly pray that it doesn’t happen to our child.
When Hamish was injured, it took a while for Pollock to register that “he’d had a real injury to his brain as well. He lost consciousness, but we didn’t focus on that.” She adds: “It’s not uncommon for young boys to have a titanium implant to repair their cheekbone. And I know of a number of young boys whose parents have allowed them to play again. You have to ask serious questions about our socio-cultural beliefs.’
It’s expected that every responsible parent will take the time to cross the road with their child. And yet, as Pollock points out, we’d put them back into this “dangerous and exposed situation’’. Taking your child out of rugby feels like a political, controversial decision, verging on unpatriotic. “Because the establishment is so powerful, we’ve suspended our own judgment,” says Pollock.
Certainly, we’ve all been slightly surprised, when watching a children’s match (be it rugby or other), to realise quite how fiercely the adults — the sports directors as well as some parents — are invested in winning. “Children can be put under big pressure to continue playing, even though they’re injured,” Pollock adds.
My husband and I talked briefly of not letting our son play, but it was unthinkable. I feared he’d face derision. I didn’t want him internalising the idea that he wasn’t as able or resilient as his friends. I pestered my husband to find out what rules the school had in place. We settled for warning him never to play on if he’d suffered a concussion — a ludicrous situation to be in. Are we conditioned to the point that we accept a risk of a brain injury as a very possible part of the school day? Pollock agrees: “It is bizarre to have a conversation [about] ‘What should I do if my child’s concussed?’ rather than: ‘Should he be playing at all and do we know what the rates of injury are?’ ”
What we do know is that concussion is the leading cause of injury in rugby. “In the short term,” says Pollock, “it can result in visual impairment, memory loss, headaches, poor concentration, decreased learning ability. Children’s brains are very immature and soft and they can take a while to recover, but in the longer term, we know that repeat concussions are associated with dementia, Parkinson’s disease and neuromuscular disorder.”
For Pollock, Hamish’s injury was the last straw. A joint parental decision was made: no more rugby. To tell this to her younger son, then 12, “was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. He was passionate about the game. His friends all played. He was angry with me for quite a long time.” Happily, ten years later, he thinks she made the right decision.
We all want our children to thrive, to be active and to be happy — but at what cost? Pollock wants a rational discussion, to “inform, protect, prevent’’. She knows that to forbid a child to play his beloved rugby “can seem like the end of the world’’, but she adds: “It’s much more the end of the world if a child is seriously injured. Then, actually, that is the end of their game anyway.”
My son plays the same position I did. I’d take him out of the team if I could
A lot of men look back on school rugby through a wistful, Vaseline-smeared lens. Nothing like getting thumped on a Saturday morning, guzzling tea and toast, and bantering all the way home on the school coach.
What I forget is how lucky I was. For five years I played hooker for the school team and broke my nose twice before the age of 15. My job was to be the smallish guy in the front row who gets the ball out of the middle of the scrum.
That would have been fine if schoolboys knew how to scrum but most don’t. Poorly set scrums torque and twist and often collapse into a V-shaped pile. As hooker I’d be at the apex of this V with what felt like the weight of 11 teenagers on my neck. I have vivid memories of this intolerable pressure, the yelling and screaming of myself and my opposite number for everyone to back off. After I left school I never played rugby again.
Now my oldest son is playing and I am deeply conflicted. Not only does his school have a mandatory rugby tradition, but he loves the game and despite my protestations plays the same hooker position that I did. Each time the scrum collapses I remember myself in there and my stomach turns. I loathe this side of it. If I had my choice I would take him out of the rugby team completely.
I often talk to the coaches about what concussion policies there are but with the best will in the world they are games masters and coaches, not doctors, and most concussions probably go unreported. In professional contact sports there are medics present at every game. Why do we allow our children to take the same risks with fewer safeguards?
My gut feeling is that it’s time to drop the scrum (the most dangerous phase of play) and move over to tag rugby, which stresses speed, fitness and agility. There is truth in the idea that the brute contact aspect of rugby builds your confidence, but looking back at my rugby experience, the most important lessons of perseverance and toughness came from running myself ragged in the mud and rain and snow — not from physical contact or being injured.
As a father I’d rather we designed a game fit for the 21st century and left all the bleeding and concussions to the history books.
In the spinal unit, I met two young men paralysed by rugby
It was a bright Saturday autumn morning when the call came. From my son’s mobile. Only it wasn’t his voice, it was his rugby coach’s. Douglas, he said, has hurt his neck in the match and has been stretchered to hospital. We think he’s OK, but . . .
Fast-forward to the dash to A&E, numb, blood frozen solid in my veins, to find him smiling at me from a spinal board, his muddy boots sticking out over the end because he’s so tall. “It’s OK, Mum. Look: I can wiggle my toes.” He had damaged his trapezius muscle. He was lucky. He went back to play rugby again, adoring the fun, the physicality, the camaraderie. I did not think of stopping him despite that and multitudinous other injuries from the game.
Fast-forward again, three years or so, and I was strapped to a spinal board in A&E. Same city. Different hospital. Numb, blood frozen in my veins. Only this time it was not OK. I couldn’t wiggle my toes. In falling off my horse, I had broken my neck and crushed my spinal cord.
In my year in the spinal unit, trying to accept I was a tetraplegic, I met two young men in the same boat. They broke their backs as teenagers playing schoolboy rugby and will be in wheelchairs, paralysed, doubly incontinent, denied normal sexual function, for the rest of their lives. Seeing them and their anguished parents, I finally understood what was at stake.
Rugby, in its modern, musclebound, big-hit culture, is too dangerous for young bodies. It must be adapted or reformed for schoolchildren. I hate writing this because I adore the game and it feels like a betrayal, but to say otherwise is a betrayal of young lives. Allyson Pollock is right.