Rugby and concussion: tantamount to child abuse?

Academics' headline-grabbing claim has been described as 'verging on insulting'

Children playing rugby
Scientists from the universities of Winchester, Nottingham Trent and Bournemouth said the game should be banned among under-18s
(Image credit: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

A report by academics that claims children's rugby could be a form of child abuse has sparked a flood of criticism.

"Two centuries after the birth of rugby on school playing fields", the experts say the game "should be banned among under-18s", said The Times.

'Abusive to a child's brain'

The researchers, from the universities of Winchester, Nottingham Trent and Bournemouth, argued that the risk of major injury in the game goes against child abuse laws.

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They found that "knocks to the head" can lead to dementia or Parkinson's, and that children who started playing younger are more likely to risk brain trauma, compared to those who took up the game at an older age.

Speaking to The Times, Eric Anderson, a professor of sport at the University of Winchester who led the study, said: "These collisions cause cognitive harm and increase the risk of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia; they are therefore abusive to a child's brain."

He added that our "cultural perception is that striking a child outside sport is abuse" but "striking a child in sport is somehow socially acceptable". It "doesn't matter what the social context is, the brain is damaged in both", he said.

The point that the academics were "trying to make will be lost in the melee" that greeted their headline-grabbing use of the word "abuse", said Ross Clark in The Spectator. This is frustrating because, "had it been expressed in more moderate language", he would find himself "fully in agreement" with the authors.

There is a "serious risk of injury, and one which seems to be growing" because "the sport seems to be becoming ever more physical, and children are growing bigger and heavier from a young age".

The words of a "rugby-loving parent" who provides first aid to a team of schoolboys in Sussex are remembered by Sean Ingle in The Guardian. "It is not until you have cradled the head of someone else's son, who is then unable to stand unassisted, that it really hits home how dangerous this game can be," they told him.

"With every passing year," said Ingle, "what we know about the dangers of head impacts continues to evolve" and "rugby will have to as well".

'Verging on insulting'

"Can they really mean it, though?" asked David Horspool in The Spectator. There are also "risks" in "other children's activities, including football, cycling and swimming", but "no one advocating for those sports is intentionally subjecting children to harm".

Vocabulary "never ceases to amaze me", wrote the former England rugby union international Will Greenwood in The Telegraph, but to call rugby "child abuse" is "aggressive, verging on insulting".

The "entire landscape around injuries – of the head or otherwise – in rugby has shifted enormously in the past 20 years", he said. Although "historically" players were not "well looked after", those days are "long gone", so there is "no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater".

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson fears that there could be a drive to ban rugby altogether. "If we keep going like this,", said the former PM in the Daily Mail, the "vast army" of "finger-wagging, cigar-snatching, mask-wearing, Covid-maddened health and safety fanatics" is "going to keep pushing us back, our boots skidding in the mud", until they have "driven the oval ball right off the national pitch".

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