Rugby Player Welfare, Part 2: 'Rugby Is Not the NFL'...Not Yet, Anyway

Jeff Hull@@HullatHomeContributor IIIAugust 1, 2013

Rugby is thought to be safer than NFL. How much safer?
Rugby is thought to be safer than NFL. How much safer?

"Rugby is not NFL Football."

That was the claim made by an International Rugby Board (IRB) representative recently. The comment came in response to a series of investigative reports from Ben Heather of New Zealand's Dominion Post.

Mr. Heather has joined others, including your humble correspondent here at Bleacher Report, in looking into the validity of that statement.

  • Rugby versus Football Numbers: An Inconvenient Truth  
  • Rapid Player Weight Gain: A Game for All Sizes?
  • Brain Trauma in Rugby: Asking Difficult Questions

Only two weeks ago, I posted part one of this series in which I looked at the damning comments put forward by Scotland international Rory Lamont. Lamont's claims about player welfare have created quite the stir in the global rugby community.

In that report, I also shared two of the catalysts that had moved me to examine the issue of player welfare in rugby more closely: the death of several young rugby players in recent months and the current campaign by New Yorker columnist Malcom Gladwell to bring awareness to the issue of brain trauma—also known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)—in contact sports.

Rugby versus Football Numbers: An Inconvenient Truth

Specifically, Gladwell has focused his attention on American football, where some of the most serious evidence of player trauma is now being accumulated.

But how different is elite football from rugby, and how much to we really know about the risks today's rugby players are undertaking?

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That multiple players have died from head trauma in rugby within the last calendar year is matter of recent public record.

A 2011 study out of the Auckland University of Technology (AUT)—one used in official IRB literature—looked at the issue of how dangerous rugby was in comparison to other contact sports and other activities where a participant is known to assume some risk. The study listed the "acceptable zone" for catastrophic injuries in any activity—catastrophic being defined as either paralysis or death—as being between 0.1 and 2.0 incidents for every 100,000 participants. 

The study looked separately at both incidents within England and all other rugby-playing nations combined between 1970 and 2005. It found that while catastrophic incidents within England fell well within the acceptable range, incidents elsewhere in the rugby playing world fell far outside it, measuring 4.6 catastrophic injuries for every 100,000 player annually.

American football's numbers within the same time period were 1.0 catastrophic incidents per every 100,000 players.

The study also lists other activities, such as being a car passenger or a pedestrian on the street, both of which have lower catastrophic injury rates then rugby. However, Gladwell would no doubt have problems with the inclusion of essential work-life activities like these.

As he told a recent University of Pennsylvania audience, "When some activity is not essential to our lives, we shouldn't require an incredibly high standard of proof before we act to change it."

Those numbers from the IRB's own study are more then eight years old. It is incredibly important to understand that the size, pace and power of rugby players is constantly advancing. 

Player Weight Gain: A Game for All Shapes and Sizes?

One of Gladwell's key arguments is that the science of building a bigger, stronger athlete has become highly advanced, and young people are now having extreme demands placed on them to play contact sports at an elite level.

Here is what Gladwell said recently on CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS.

They are deliberately bulked up. You can't play offensive lineman in the NFL now unless you are well over 300 pounds. We see lineman who are over 350 pounds. These are people whose natural weight is probably closer to 200 or 210 pounds. So we're adding perhaps 140 pounds of playing weight, starting in high school. There are high school linemen now who are north of 300 pounds.

The long-term side effects of that kind of extraordinary weight gain in your teens and 20s are both known and devastating! If I told you I wanted to take your children and double their weight over the next five years so they could play a game, what would you say? You'd say that's insane.

Admittedly, Gladwell's arguments do have their critics. So to see how they measure up, we checked in with Bleacher Report's own injury expert, Will Carroll.  

Gladwell has interesting outside-the-box thoughts, but it's clear that (in regard to weight) he's correct here. Pick out any NFL lineman. Look to see what weight he was in college and then in high school. The weight gain in [his] first year at a D1 program is ridiculous. I've seen 50-pound gains.

What you're talking about is specialization. Players have increased in size rapidly over last 20 years, just as they had in 20 years before that. Players in the "ironman/two-way era" were smaller, but I'm not sure that players like Brian Urlacher couldn't do it now.

For those of you who may think that developing rugby players shouldn't be compared to developing American football players, think again.

The heaviest prop forward at the 2013 IRB World Junior Championships—the rugby age and skill equivalent of elite college football—weighed in at a stunning 130 kilograms, or 287 pounds. The heaviest adult prop at the 2011 World Cup was 138 kilograms (308 pounds).

So it would seem that Gladwell's thinking about the dangers of rapid weight gain should have the rugby community thinking as well—but not only because rapid weight gain has its own damning long-term effects.

Gladwell believes that increased size and weight are also part of the problem when it comes to potential head injury and long-term brain trauma.

Brain Trauma in Rugby: Asking Difficult Questions

In terms of how to think about head trauma in the modern era, Carroll had these thoughts.

Accidents, no matter how tragic, happen. The unknowns of concussions are tougher since they're unknown in both frequency and ability to affect them. I think the key right now is less about prevention, since we don't know how, and more on proper treatment. People don't notice that when [concussions] are treated properly, there seems to be a high degree of return for people. That's not to say there's not some percentage of long-term issues or worse but that we do have some level of control on the result.

Gladwell would probably disagree, as he has regularly favoured a more aggressive approach to prevention. He has repeatedly warned against the danger of glossing over risk with statements like this one from that 2011 AUT study

"No activity is risk free, and the process of risk management is not intended to reduce levels of risk to zero." 

We may not be be able to reduce the risk to zero, but there are still rugby players dying, and what we don't know about the risks of long-term brain injury in the sport is worrisome.

Gladwell's major point is that there is already enough proof of CTE's presence in the football community to cause significant concern.

The most recent study commissioned by the IRB—once again at the Auckland University of Technology—sought to study 600 retired rugby players who had played at an elite level. The study was intended to look for evidence of long-term concussive effects. Sadly, the study has experienced some setbacks.

Even in a rugby-rich country like New Zealand, the study's participant numbers are "desperately low."

The study's chief researcher, professor Patria Hume, recently told the New Zealand Herald the following:

The IRB wanted us to do the study because New Zealand is rugby mad. If we can't do the study here, where in the world are we going to do the study? There seems to be awareness of the study, but we've had trouble getting people to contribute.

Someone said to me 'I really don't want to know how my health is', which is fine, they don't have to know the results if they don't want them. Just fill in the questionnaire so that we know them.

What does it say about this issue of brain trauma in rugby that such a study cannot even find a few hundred volunteers to fill out its ranks?

In the absence of data, the IRB is saying all the right things. There are new concussion protocols and the sport's governing body is doing what it can to educate players and coaches.

Unfortunately, when hits like the one seen below are dismissed as legal tackles by modern national team coaches, it would appear that these efforts are not yet being met with success.

Rory Lamont has spoken out against the pressures that are sometimes put on players to battle through injury and the tricks teams and players use to defeat concussion protocols.

With all of these issues in the mix, perhaps the most important question is this: Can rugby trust itself to investigate these dangers properly?

"Rugby is not NFL Football" was what the unnamed IRB representative told The Dominion Post last May. 

Just how different are they?

The hard truth is that there are a number of important and potentially dangerous parallels between the two games, and until the rugby community removes the stigmas that accompany player welfare, the true answer to that question may never be known.

Click here for Part One 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.

Unless otherwise stated, all quoted material was obtained firsthand.

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