Long-term effects of concussions make banning kids from playing rugby a no-brainer

British academics have called on the UK government to "remove the tackle and other forms of harmful contact from the ...

British academics have called on the UK government to "remove the tackle and other forms of harmful contact from the school game".

OPINION: Recently, a British academic called for the banning of tackling in school rugby. For many rugby lovers, this stance sounds drastic. It portends the demise of our great game. 

Professor Allyson Pollock and her team from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom have done some research and conclude that rugby, with its tackling and frequent body contact, is just too dangerous (British Journal of Sports Medicine, August 2017). Young boys are getting concussed at alarming rates – eight times higher than boys playing American football. 

Surely, the banning of tackling is a knee-jerk reaction by ivory tower academics who know little about the benefits of rugby. Does Professor Pollock not appreciate the thrill youth get from the rough and tumble of rugby, and the delight of getting filthy dirty? And what about the camaraderie and fond memories of the game that last a lifetime, growing more heroic as the years pass?

Kieran Read of the All Blacks and Mako Vunipola of the Lions receive treatment during the third test match between the ...

Kieran Read of the All Blacks and Mako Vunipola of the Lions receive treatment during the third test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on July 8, 2017 in Auckland.

I remember vividly playing for Whanganui Under 18s in one game when I scooped up a loose ball, ran at a thicket of forwards, side-stepped ponderous props, swerved past lumbering locks, then out-paced loose forwards to dart away and score between the posts. It was an exhilarating feeling then, as it is now. 

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But I must admit there are other memories – not so vivid. Like the time I went low, head on, to tackle a hooker. I misjudged his speed and the height of his lifting leg. Yes, I remember that, and his shin hitting me dead centre in the forehead. I didn't remember any of the game after that knock.

Then there was the time I tried to bring down a raging flanker from side on. He flicked his hip and I copped it fair and square on my left temple. I didn't remember the rest of that game either.

All told, I got five concussions as a teenager playing rugby. Two were in one week.

I wore these concussions as a badge of honour. They were my evidence of footing it with the big boys and being brave enough to go back for more.

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The knocks did not seem to do me much harm. I can't remember them affecting my school work and they certainly didn't impact my later education or career. So perhaps concussions are just part of rugby – no worse than a sprained ankle, probably better than a broken leg. 

Well, that is what I thought until the eve of my 59th birthday. It was a glorious spring evening and I could not resist the temptation of going mountain biking alone in the Port Hills overlooking Christchurch. Half-way across the summit traverse I took a tumble over the handle bars and knocked myself out. My friends said I was lucky. Lucky that I didn't break my neck. 

Almost two years later, I am still recovering from that fall – not feeling at all lucky. I have major problems concentrating and, at the best of times, I can do only mild exercise. I experience frequent episodes of overwhelming fatigue that are accompanied by strange electrical headaches and acute depression.

It's not too bad. These episodes pass in a couple of days and I stabilise after a week or so. But they do come back, less often now than at the start.

After the fall, I took about six months off work. I am now back on the job but struggling to work half-time. Half-time seems ironic. Stuck between the first and second half of my career with an inadequate team-talk from health professionals. No idea when the game will restart.

I have what is called post-concussion syndrome.  This is the medical term used when symptoms of concussion linger for more than three months. I am in the 10 per cent of cases who take longer than a year to recover.

Apparently, my special group are more likely to have suffered prior concussions than those who recover quicker. It has got something to do with the brain's limited capacity to heal after repeated knocks. We are also the group who, later in life, are more likely to get Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.

I wrote this article because I feel compelled to warn parents of the long-term consequences of their children getting concussed – knocked-out while having fun playing a sport that is inherently dangerous. Repeated head knocks are simply not worth the joy of scoring between the posts. 

Should tackling in school rugby be banned? I am inclined to agree with Professor Pollock's stance.

But in reality, there is no need to fiddle with the rules of rugby. Better choices exist for children's sport. I urge parents to be proactive and encourage their kids to play safer games. There are plenty of options for young people.

Many team sports have similar benefits to rugby without jeopardising a child's most precious asset. An asset that should be nurtured and protected. After all, your brain is who you are.

Tony Kettle is a professor of biomedical research at the University of Otago, Christchurch.

 - Stuff


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