What links rugby and American football? (Part 1 of 2)

24 Sep 2018 4min read

Over the past few years, the impact of concussion on current and former athletes has become a major talking point in the world of collision sports.

In the US, a number of high-profile lawsuits brought against the National Football League (NFL) by former players have pushed safety and wellbeing to the forefront of the debate. Similar discussions are taking place in rugby: a recent study claimed that tackling and scrummaging should be banned in school rugby for fear of injury. World Rugby rejected these claims, arguing that improved education and coaching would be a greater factor in contributing to safety.

So what measures are being taken by teams, leagues and governing bodies of these sports to ensure athlete safety?

Preventative measures

Both Rugby Union and the NFL have rules against targeting the head when tackling. In Rugby Union’s case this covers any tackle, but the NFL only prohibits it when the offensive player is deemed to be in a ‘vulnerable’ position (as defined by the NFL rule book). However, the NFL has tried to make a drastic improvement to the safety of the game and protect the player making a tackle by introducing a new rule (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8 of the NFL rule book), which prohibits any player from “lowering his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent”.

The number of NFL players missing games due to head injury has continued to increase – NFL injury data indicated a 50% rise in cases of concussion in the 2015 season over the previous year. Similar figures were also collected from premiership rugby for the same period.

Despite this worrying trend, premiership rugby has proposed to increase the length of the season from 9 to 10 months, an idea which has been criticised by players and coaches alike. One player, Billy Vunipola stated in an interview on BBC radio that he would welcome fewer games, even if it meant a reduction in wages. Some players clearly find the current schedule demanding in terms of recovery and preparation time between games, and if they saw more progress in developing and implementing solutions to prevent head injuries, they might feel more comfortable with longer seasons.

Protecting the brain

Stricter regulation is one means of protecting players, but injury prevention through the development of safer equipment is another avenue to explore. This is easier in some collision sports than others: protective equipment is mandatory in the NFL, but not in rugby. Current NFL helmet design is governed by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), which only assess helmets on their ability to protect the head from impact injuries like cuts and skull fractures.


NOCSAE Standards

Now that brain injury prevention has gained so much notoriety, the NFL have launched an incentive programme worth $10m for product development companies to develop innovative medical materials and designs to protect players from concussion. I think this is an excellent way of developing a high-quality product using business which specialise in thinking outside the box to come up with solutions to unusual problems. However, it’s likely that the NOCSAE will need to review their standards to include assessing for the protection of the brain from trauma before any meaningful changes are made.

As rugby doesn’t mandate protective headgear, little can be done to prevent concussion without regulation changes. The next obvious step would therefore be to focus on detecting the seriousness of any head injury as early as possible in order to prevent deterioration by allowing for the affected player(s) adequate time to recover.

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