Academics call on Chief Medical Officers to support removal of tackling in children's rugby

18 Dec 2020
Young rugby player holding ball and running down the pitch chased by another player

Academics from the University of Winchester, Oxford Brookes University and Newcastle University have written an open letter to Chief Medical Officers in the UK today (Friday 18 December 2020), advising them to support their request that tackling should be removed from rugby played by school-aged children.

The request is supported by a growing body of recent evidence that associates the number of years of participation in contact sport and dementia linked to repetitive head injuries.

The letter reads as follows:

Friday 18 December 2020

Dear Chief Medical Officers,

Open Letter: Removal of the tackle in School Rugby

We are writing to ask you to take the necessary steps to review the evidence on risks of injury and harms from rugby in school children and having done so to advise the UK government to remove the tackle from the sport. We refer you to our previous letters and written evidence to all four chief medical officers in 2016 and 2017.

Concern about injuries and traumatic brain injury in youth sport is of growing international concern, including in rugby union and rugby league. The Concussion Legacy Foundation has launched the Tackle Can Wait campaign in the United States to reduce children's exposure to these repetitive head traumas, and its Safer Soccer campaign helped US Soccer delay heading until age 11. The England, Scotland and Northern Ireland Football Associations have delayed heading the ball for children until 12, and strictly limited it from age 12.

Recent research funded and conducted by the Rugby Football Union has highlighted the lack of evidence for any discernible physical health benefits from full contact rugby union compared with non-contact codes of rugby, such as touch rugby. This RFU scoping exercise concluded that:

"Across the spectrum of participation, contact rugby union has high injury and concussion incidence rates relative to other sports".

It is now well established that young players under the age of 18 are particularly vulnerable to concussive injuries because of the maturing and the dynamic neurophysiological state of the adolescent brain. Despite this our 2018 survey of a sample of 288 state secondary schools found:

  • 76 per cent of boys in English state-funded secondary schools are required by their school to participate in contact rugby in physical education lessons as part of the curriculum.

  • Most heads of physical education perceive contact rugby to be the highest risk activity delivered in physical education.

The situation whereby the RFU determine the rules of play for children including in schools cannot continue. We are concerned that in failing to act to protect children from the tackle in the school game and by allowing the sport's governing bodies to decide what, if any, information to collect, the British government is exposing children to significant risk.

We call on you to advise the Ministers for Education, Health and Sport in all four nations to remove the tackle from the school game.

Dr Adam J White

Professor Allyson Pollock

Professor Eric Anderson

Graham Kirkwood

Professor Eric Anderson, Professor of Sport, Health and Social Sciences at the University of Winchester, said: "Rugby, like all sports, will need to change in relation to our understanding of its impact on health. Touch rugby offers a solution to mixed weight and mixed ability rugby play, promoting a more inclusive and safer environment. Tackle rugby offers no health benefits, and significant brain trauma, compared to touch rugby".

Dr Adam White, Lecturer in Sport and Coaching Science at Oxford Brookes University who holds a PhD from the University of Winchester, said: "Over the last few weeks we have heard the terrible news of ex-professional players who are suffering with the effects of concussions and sub-concussions on their brains.

"We must now do everything we can to protect our children from suffering from the same mistakes. We know that years of exposure to concussive and repetitive head impacts is associated with CTE and other Alzheimer's Disease Related Dementias in contact sport. So let's do the simple thing and put our children first by removing the tackle from school physical education.

"This is not about removing choice, it is about making informed choice a more central component of children's participation in contact sport. Children can still opt to participate after school, in community clubs and in environments where it is done at their own volition."

Professor Allyson Pollock, Professor and Director of the Newcastle University Centre for Excellence in Regulatory Science, said: "Schools have a duty of care towards children. There is irrefutable evidence of the harms which result from playing contact rugby in schools, as most injuries, including head injuries, occur during the tackle. Government must act to remove the collision elements, including the tackle, from the school game."

CEO and Founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Dr Chris Nowinski, commented: "Protecting the developing brains of children in sport must be a priority. Concussion prevention should be our primary focus, rather than diagnosis or management, as by then damage has already been done. The introduction of tackle can wait in contact sports like rugby."

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