In a lot of ways I think the NFL could learn a great deal from rugby, especially when it comes to player safety through sound fundamental tackling and hitting techniques. Rugby has gone out of its way to remove some of the more reckless and dangerous aspects of play from the game, and the development of the sport through the decades has resulted in far fewer catastrophic injuries than pro football despite an equally violent nature.
During the final British and Irish Lions test match against Australia though rugby’s stance on concussions and head trauma became at best a joke, and at worst a disgraceful disaster.
Whether you believe their motives to be pure or not there is little doubt that the NFL is doing almost everything in its power to treat head injuries and concussions seriously. If a player is knocked out, much like Stevan Ridley in the playoffs this January, there is no chance they would make it back onto the field anymore. In fact, there is a good chance they wouldn’t make it near the field the next week either.
In theory rugby has added some concussion safeguards too. They remain unenforced and ignored.
After being called up during the week and inserted into the starting lineup, Australia flanker George Smith was involved in a collision within the first five minutes of the game, clashing heads with Lions hooker Richard Hibbard and dropping to the ground – out cold.
Smith was eventually roused by the medical staff and helped off the field, barely able to support his own weight as he wobbled his way from foot to foot. Everything to this point was a perfect parallel with Ridley’s knock out, right down to the fact it was the man running with the ball and initiating contact that came off worse.
From this point though rugby disgraced itself. Smith was allowed back onto the field just a few minutes later, and played on. For the Australian medical staff to allow that is almost beyond belief given their knowledge of the dangers. For the team to allow it is also highly questionable, and lastly referee Roman Poitre, who stopped the game immediately at the time of the hit because he saw Smith knocked out cold, should be asked serious questions.
It became worse during the game as Smith was allowed to take breaks as he became woozy again, ostensibly as a blood substitution (rugby mandates any bleeding player be replaced until that blood flow is staunched). The risk that Smith was exposed to by multiple parties there is enormous. Whatever the damage of one concussive blow to the head, getting another while still reeling from the effects of the first compounds the damage to a virtually catastrophic level.
To make matters worse, there was no outcry. The commentary made no mention of the risk, and directed virtually no attention to the fact that minutes before Smith had been out cold on the floor and then unable to walk without assistance. The reports after the game were buried in ignorant attitudes from the past with no place in the modern world with the way they treated the whole episode. Instead of lambasting people for letting Smith play on, the Australian media heralded him for heroically and bravely playing on.
But almost four years after his last Test appearance, Smith defied the odds to make a miraculous return to the field.
It was brave, gutsy and proof of his determination.
Another word for that would be stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t blame Smith. Players will always want to go back out and play on, especially if the hit happened just minutes into the game, but that is precisely why they need to be protected from themselves. The NFL has taken matters well out of the players hands, and rugby has done likewise in theory.
This was a complete and total breakdown of the system the IRB has put in place, showing its painful fragility compared to that of the NFL, and the lack of attention the incident has drawn only highlights how buried in the dark ages rugby remains when it comes to brain injury and concussive trauma.
I am a massive rugby fan, and there are many ways that rugby outstrips the NFL, but on that day I was ashamed by how far behind the sport is in one critical area of player safety.