Rugby Player Welfare Part 1: The Canary in the Coal Mine

Jeff Hull@@HullatHomeContributor IIIJuly 27, 2013

Rugby has a duty to its players, but is it listening?
Rugby has a duty to its players, but is it listening?

The damning revelations that came to light this week, courtesy of veteran Scotland winger Rory Lamont, were revealed amidst a flurry of troubling reports concerning player trauma in contact sports; many of which are beginning to cause increasing concern within the global rugby community.

Your humble correspondent was also in the middle of conducting in-depth research into player welfare in rugby when Lamont's comments in The Scotsman pierced the tragic silence that seems to cover these issues in the modern game.

I told them [medics and coaches] I couldn’t play and was looking at pulling myself out. I had done it once before, also against the All Blacks [in 2008], when I had a bad shoulder injury, but they disagreed and said it was in my head.

So I had medics in one ear, coaches in the other. I want to play more than anyone and my body’s saying ‘no, no, no ...’ Next day, I’m doing the warm-up at Murrayfield and the quad’s stiff, my head is all over the place. I’m looking at the crowds and thinking I shouldn’t be here.

I put it out of my mind and concentrate on my first job, to sprint from the kick-off and make the first tackle. The whistle goes, and I take off and, after about 15 metres, I feel something go ffffft in my thigh and the pain suddenly becomes excruciating.

So, I get it treated, let it ease and stay on until half-time. I did my best but I played like shit. I never missed a tackle, because I couldn’t get near them. We lost four tries and Mike Blair to injury. I told them at half-time ‘I can’t stay on’, and they weren’t happy. But I stayed off. We lose heavily, a coach asks me after the game if I have a mental issue with playing the All Blacks. I just shake my head.

These recollections from Lamont's time as a professional and with the Scottish national team help confirm the worst for many who had harboured suspicions about the dark side of player welfare at the elite level.

In many places, the thin veil that helps conceal such issues is sadly still very much intact.

In the same interview, Lamont also spoke about the tactics both teams and players use to defeat protocols around concussions.

I have suffered clean knockouts, real sleeping-on-the-floor episodes in a game, so I know the protocols inside out, the symptoms and recovery periods, and there is no way a player should be allowed to stay on the pitch after a head knock. It’s insanity. People might get annoyed with me saying this, but we are seeing reckless disregard for players’ welfare right now.

My own research into the issue was spurred by a pair a "light bulb moments" that helped focus my attention on the importance of player welfare—and specifically the issue of head trauma—in rugby.

In May of 2013. Rowan Stringer, a female teen-aged player from Ottawa, Canada, fell unconscious after a tackle in a match with her high school team.

She never woke up.

Following her death, details emerged that she may not have fully recovered from a previous head injury suffered in the weeks before.

Canada's rugby community came together in grief and support, but sadly, Rowan's story is far from unique.

Malcom Gladwell, a columnist for the New Yorker who is responsible for such groundbreaking books as Outliers and The Tipping Point, recently conducted a media blitz aimed at drawing attention to the dangers posed by head trauma in contact sports; specifically American football. 

The most fiery and controversial speech in this tour was made in his appearance at Penn State University, where he spoke passionately about the recent death of Owen Thomas, the former captain of the Penn State football team.

While Thomas' death, and the subsequent brain diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), may have been the most emotional of moments in Gladwell's speech, there was another that was perhaps even more valuable.

In his introduction, Gladwell took his university audience back to the days of American coal mines in the early 20th century, and to the brave early efforts to shed light on the terrible health risks being imposed on those who worked there.

Gladwell draws an eerie comparison between the efforts to defeat those warnings, and what is being done to blur the lines around head trauma and CTE in sport today.

The comments of a player like Rory Lamont, who has seen the modern game from every possible angle, should surely be enough to spur a renewed conversation in rugby circles.

This article is the first of what I hope will be a number of features that will attempt to dive into the troubling issues around player welfare in rugby. For if more is not done to improve the situation for today's players, rugby could soon find itself alongside American football as a sport fast losing support among a new generation of parents and young families.

Everywhere there are canaries singing loudly, still others lie dead before us.

It's time to heed their warnings and step out of the dark.

Click here for Part Two of this series

Click here for Part Three of this series

Click here for our Player Welfare Update

Jeff Hull is the Featured Rugby Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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