DEBATING MATTERS TOPIC GUIDE

We should accept the risk inherent in contact sports

INTRODUCTION

In December 2020, a group of former rugby players – including Steve Thompson, a World Cup winner with England in 2003 – sent a pre-action letter to World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union, suing them for failing to take protective action against the risks caused by concussion [Ref: BBC Sport]. It is the first legal move of its kind in world rugby, with some comparing it to the class action against the NFL in 2011, where 20,000 retired players accused the league of not warning about, and hiding, brain injuries associated with the sport [Ref: NFL Concussion Settlement]. 

All 11 players who have come forward so far have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease discovered by Dr Bennet Omalu in American football player Mike Webster [Ref: BBC Sport]. The disease gained public attention following the 2012 suicide of NFL player Junior Seau, who was posthumously found to be a sufferer of the disease [Ref: NPR].

These concussion controversies are not just restricted to rugby and American football. In fact, the firm that is carrying out the legal action for the 11 rugby players, Rylands Law, has also confirmed that it is bringing a claim on behalf of the families of 40 former professional footballers with early-onset dementia [Ref: Guardian].  Dr Willie Stewart, a consultant neurologist, revealed that “footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the general population” [Ref: Guardian]. Cricket has sparked a debate about the removal of aggressive moves, such as the bouncer, where recently 22-year-old Australian Will Pucovski was hit on the head during a warm-up match leading to his ninth concussion at such a young age [Ref: Telegraph].

These instances and others have brought the issue of sports safety to the fore, with many now questioning the legitimacy, and even humanity, of contact sports at the professional, amateur and youth level [Ref: Guardian]. Critics argue that the rules and culture of contact sports must change to protect athletes from their desire to win at all costs; ultimately, sport must change to put safety first [Ref: Conversation]. Yet others, including many sportspeople, disagree. Should we trust athletes to understand the consequences of contact sports and make a rational choice to take a risk for their love of the game? Or is it necessary that we protect athletes from themselves?

DEBATE IN CONTEXT

Taking a risk

CTE, colloquially known as “punch drunk” due to the disease’s association with boxing, is a progressive degenerative illness found in people who have had a severe blow or repeated blows to the head. In its minor forms, symptoms include dizziness and headaches; in more severe forms, it can mean erratic behaviour, memory loss and dementia [Ref: Wikipedia]. Scientific research continues to bring to light the association between CTE and contact sports such as American football, rugby, boxing and mixed martial arts [Ref: Economist], with new evidence suggesting that women are twice as likely as to get concussed as men, with the effects being more severe [Ref: BBC].

In December 2020, an open letter signed by a group of academics called for a ban on tackling for school rugby games due to the concerns “about the potential impact on young, developing brains of repeated concussive blows” [Ref: BBC Sport], after similar letters in 2016 and 2017, to “ensure the maximum possible safety for children”.  Likewise,­ calls for children under the age of 16 to be banned from heading in football have recently gained momentum, backed up by the wife of Nobby Stiles, the former England international football player who passed away in October last year suffering from dementia [Ref: Evening Standard]. 

Many commentators have since called for authorities to take urgent action to combat brain injuries, including reducing contact-training sessions, improving concussion protocols, using safer tackling techniques, and even removing unsafe elements of sport not just for children but at the elite level as well [Ref: BBC Sport]. 

Nevertheless, some critics are adamant that despite rule changes, improved technology and ‘smarter’ coaching, sports like American football can never really be safe. One sports writer commented: “No matter how you play football, head injuries are inevitable…[and] at some point, we might have to acknowledge the only way to play smarter football is to not play it at all.” [Ref: Guardian]

But those defending contact sports, such as former rugby union player Alex Bennet, insist that the game has given more to him than it has ever taken away [Ref: Telegraph]. He states that the game has moved on massively since he started playing, with there being much more information on how to safely coach and manage players. Other sport stars, such as NFL Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, argue that professional athletes are now fully educated on the risks, and make an informed choice to continue playing the game they love [Ref: MMQB]. In this view, if you make the decision to play in any elite sport, there is a high possibility that you may get the odd broken bone, or even a serious injury, but concerns over player safety should not destroy the game as a result. Similarly, others observe that a cultural aversion to risk-taking is being enforced on sports we have known are dangerous since their inception, and athletes and children should be both free to, and at times encouraged, to take risks [Ref: Guardian].

Winning at all costs?

Some commentators argue that not only do rules of sport need to be changed but also the culture within it [Ref: The Conversation]. The relentless drive to win at all cost leads players to believe that they have no choice but to play through injuries, doing whatever is needed to succeed – ideas often instilled from a young age [Ref: The Conversation]. Former W-league football player Natasha Prior states that she felt pressure to return playing after several serious injuries, often given just a two-week grace period [Ref: ESPN]. Steve Thompson describes rugby professionals as “bits of meat on a conveyor belt”, exploited then tossed aside when deemed surplus [Ref: Guardian]. To protect sportsmen from the considerable risk of head injuries we must, it is suggested, change the aim of sports from winning to enjoyment at both the amateur and professional levels [Ref: Huffington Post]. Contact sports participants, it is argued, need adequate information about concussions, models of safe play must be enforced and, most importantly, athletes need to be encouraged not to play on in the face of injury and put their safety first [Ref: Guardian].

But critics of this approach counter that the very desire to ‘fight on’ is why contact sports are so valuable. Some state that this uncompromising, winning mentality is what instils sport with its absorbing dynamism, creating “operatic spectacles between individuals and teams as they strive and struggle for glory” [Ref: Independent]. Professional boxers Chris Eubank senior and junior argue that the “warrior” mentality to stay in the ring regardless of the punishment from an opponent is at the heart of boxing’s code; the “honour and integrity” behind this mindset elevates contact sports to a higher plane and is an inherent part of its value: “You do not play boxing.” [Ref: Guardian]

Furthermore, advocates of contact sports maintain that the benefits still vastly outweigh the risk, teaching participants important ideas about fitness, teamwork, how to manage physical contact and how to overcome fear, as well as offering increased confidence and a feeling of camaraderie [Ref: Telegraph]. In short, contact sports teach things more valuable than player safety. But those opposed to this outlook continue to argue that athletes cannot be trusted to make decisions on their own safety, as they will continually sacrifice themselves in pursuit of victory [Ref: Independent].

Updating the sport?

Some contact sports have massively improved their safeguards over the past few years. Recently, the Premier League has proposed allowing a permanent concussion substitution during matches [Ref: Sky Sports]. Former players, including England manager Gareth Southgate, comment on the advancement in medical treatment for such injuries since they were playing, although Southgate still believes that “football remains in the dark about the long-term risks of heading the ball and concussions sustained on the pitch” [Ref: The Guardian]. 

However, other sports like boxing seem to keep quiet on the matter. Sydney boxer Davey Browne died after getting a blow to the face that caused a subdural hematoma in the twelfth round of a fight. However, an inquest has shown that he was badly concussed by the eleventh round, but told he was fit to continue by the ringside doctor [Ref: Guardian]. The desire to ‘shake an injury off’ probably led to a death that could have been prevented. As one commentator puts itredd “while concussion is now shaking up professional football leagues and other contact sports around the world, combat sport continues to duck and weave away from it” [Ref: The Guardian]. 

So, what is the solution? Do we tear out the “soul of the game” in the name of safety? Do these sports pose such a considerable danger that the only option is not to play at all? Or do we allow those athletes who choose to embark on these careers to take risks, and if we “don’t like it, stop watching”? Should we put safety first, or is there something more valuable to be learnt at the heart of contact sports?

ESSENTIAL READING

It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

FOR

Rugby is a game of contact, why should those who wish to play with the present laws not be allowed to do so?
Brian Moore Telegraph 21 December 2020

Banning heading in football would turn the Premier League into glorified five-a-side
Troy Deeney The Sun 28 November 2020

I was paralysed playing youth rugby – but a tackle ban is not the answer
Nathan Cubitt Guardian 9 March 2016

Is rugby too dangerous? Children need to be free to take risks
Gaby Hinsliff Guardian 4 March 2016

We chose this profession
Richard Sherman MMBQ 23 September 2013

AGAINST

Tackling in children’s rugby must be banned to curb dementia risks
Eric Anderson, Adam John White and Keith Parry The Conversation 11 December 2020

Steve Thompson: ‘I can’t remember winning the World Cup’
Andy Bull Guardian 8 December 2020

‘Winning at all costs’: The pursuit of success and the dangers that come with it
Samuel Lovett Independent 30 July 2019

The sports world knows concussion can kill. So why does no one talk about it?
Stephanie Convery Guardian 27 February 2020

Sports culture must change to reduce head injuries
Debra Houry Huffington Post 24 December 2015

IN DEPTH

Sport and dementia: ‘Something needs to happen now’
Jamie Doward Guardian 13 December 2020

Can rugby union continue as normal knowing it is causing brain injuries?
Michael Aylwin Guardian 9 December 2020

Playing rugby union may help to reduce health risks
Emma O’Neill The Times 29 October 2020

Why women are more at risk from concussion
David Robson BBC Sport 31 January 2020

Stopping kids heading the ball misses the goal
David Shaw BMJ 28 January 2020

Should we worry about footballers heading the ball?
Tom Chivers Unherd 23 October 2019

Banning the tackle in school rugby: Let’s put it into context.
Kass Gibson British Medical Journal Blog 30 January 2019

Few sports are doing enough to protect athletes from brain damage
The Economist 24 January 2019

Chris Eubank Sr and Jr: ‘You have to stay and take the beating’
Decca Aitkenhead Guardian 6 April 2016

AUDIO AND VIDEO

‘Rugby head injury assessment protocol is dangerous’
BBC Radio Five Live

FURTHER READING

It is not essential for students to read the following articles to do well, but they provide important context and further arguments.

BACKGROUNDERS

Rugby only dies if we continue to ignore the facts
Owen Slot The Times 15 January 2021

Schools level tackle ban call by English university academics hasn’t gone down well online
Josh Raisey Rugby Pass 18 December 2020

England coach Eddie Jones calls for ban on tackling above the hip in kids rugby
Dan Salisbury-Jones ITV News 14 December 2020

Rugby players’ claim for brain injury has ‘less than 50/50’ chance, say experts
Sean Ingle Guardian 12 December 2020

‘My personality has changed’: readers on rugby, head injuries and dementia
Various authors Guardian 11 December 2020

England coach Eddie Jones says rugby learned from past and is safe for players
Luke McLaughlin Guardian 10 December 2020

Concussions forced me to quit professional rugby – now I’m worried about my future
Katherine Merchant Guardian 9 December 2020

The Guardian view on rugby and brain injury: an existential crisis
Editorial Guardian 9 December 2020

Football without headers is unthinkable – or is it?
Adrian Chiles Guardian 8 December 2020

The frightening reality of women’s concussions – a personal story
Brittany Mitchell ESPN 3 December 2020

Winning at all costs – how abuse in sport has become normalised
Emma Kavanagh, Adi Adams, Andrew Adams The Conversation 16 July 2020

Can heading a football lead to dementia? The evidence is growing
Hannah Devlin Guardian 13 January 2020

The knockout blow – the risk of brain injury in mixed martial arts
Hasan Chowdhury New Statesman 16 July 2016

History shows ‘smarter’ football is no match for concussion
Jack Moore Guardian 30 June 2016

Football’s silent shame: Dementia ‘conspiracy’ is a stain on the game
Jeremy Wilson Telegraph 30 May 2016

Playing through pain is part of rugby’s culture, but where’s the line?
John Daniell Guardian 9 May 2016

The great rugby union debate: should tackling be banned at school level?
Professor Eric Anderson and Dr Andrew Murrary Guardian 2 March 2016

Schools and hard knocks
Economist 5 March 2016

Bang to rights
Economist 5 March 2016

We can tackle AND stay safe… change rules to protect children but don’t ban contact
Clive Woodward Daily Mail 2 March 2016

Opinion: The harsh reality of knockouts, concussions and fighter health
Michael Hutchinson SB Nation 10 January 2016

World Rugby isn’t doing enough to protect young players from head injuries
Allyson Pollock Guardian 21 September 2015

Why former 49er Chris Borland is the most dangerous man in football
Steve Fainaru & Mark Fainaru-Wada ESPN 20 August 2015

‘School rugby brings more benefits than risks’
Telegraph 26 August 2014

IN THE NEWS

Football still ‘in the dark’ about long-term risk of heading ball, says Southgate
Louise Taylor Guardian 5 January 2021

Ryan Mason: Heading in football might not exist in 10-15 years
Alastair McGowan BBC 24 December 2020

Calls for tackling ban in school rugby over concerns of impact
Laura Scott BBC 18 December 2020

Nobby Stiles’ wife backs ban on children heading footballs amid dementia concerns
Simon Collings Evening Standard 16 December 2020

Academics call on government to ban contact rugby in schools
Dan Salisbury-Jones ITV News 18 December 2020

Premier League set to discuss implementing concussion replacements and reintroducing five substitutes
Sky Sports 15 December 2020

Football and rugby facing flood of claims over head injuries warning
Jamie Doward Guardian 13 December 2020

Dementia link leads to calls for collision rugby to be banned in schools
Matthew Weaver Guardian 10 December 2020

Steve Thompson in group of ex-rugby union internationals to sue for brain damage
Chris McLaughlin BBC 8 December 2020

Wayne Rooney in favour of investigating links between heading and dementia
Paul Wilson Guardian 19 November 2020

Seau’s Suicide Helped To Make Concussions In Football A National Issue
Transcript NPR 22 December 2015