It's time for a rethink, argues rugby journalist Michael Aylwin
Rugby Rant: Red cards not the answer to brain injury crisis
“There was no intent but it’s contact with the head, and that is not allowed. Players are just going to have to learn. There will be a transition period as they do, but player welfare is paramount.”
Apologies if there are any clichés missing from those that get repeated with each and every red card, but is it too much to hope people of influence might start to say, “Hang on a minute, how long have we been trotting out this spiel?” Because the answer is four years.
The directives regarding sanctions for contact with the head came in on 3 January 2017. The red cards are intended as a deterrent, but deterrents only work when offences are deliberate. So cliché number one – “There was no intent” – ought to set alarm bells ringing. If none of these offences is deliberate, they’re going to keep happening, no matter how many red cards you bandy about.
The idea is to get people to tackle lower. This is admirable and has actually been achieved, even if education and law change would do the job just as well. But it is possible to use World Rugby’s own figures to calculate the maximum reduction in concussion you could expect if every tackler bent at the waist. It’s 8%.
“The maximum reduction in concussion you could expect if every tackler bent at the waist is 8%”
There are as many red cards now as there were four years ago – more if anything. Concussion rates are as high as ever. Even if they weren’t, concussion is at best a small part of the real problem, which is the risk of neurodegenerative conditions in later life. That risk is attributable not to the odd high tackle but to the relentless collisions year after year. Red cards do nothing to stop those.
We even have people arguing that the red cards are not moral judgements but ways of punishing technical failings. But a red card – and subsequent ban – is the ultimate moral judgement for players. Nowhere else in the sporting universe are players sent off and banned for technical failings they cannot avoid.
Rugby has been presented with a hideous reality – that brain injury and its long-term repercussions are hard-wired into its very nature. Rather than institute law changes to try to address the problem, the sport has chosen to blame its own players by sending them off.
The players have become scapegoats for the very conditions they are at risk of developing. And their risk of developing those conditions is not in any way improved because of it. Think about that the next time you hear any of those earlier clichés. Maybe, four years in, it is time to start challenging them.
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