Safety. For us at Hamilton Rugby in Sussex, Wisconsin, it is the first and last word we consider for any activity.
And broadly speaking, rugby as a sport is pretty good at putting safety first.
But that wasn’t always the case.
When I began playing rugby in 1994, the main safety concern was catastrophic spinal injury resulting from collapsed scrums. Major changes were and continue to be made to the scrum. As a result, we are fortunate to see great improvements in safety in this area.
About 10 years ago, concussion became (and remains) the primary safety concern for rugby. Numerous changes to head injury assessment and “return to play” protocols were instituted. I’m proud to see the heightened awareness and progress towards a safer sport with less concussion risk.
Today, we have the threat of COVID-19, the global pandemic that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide and is surging in numerous areas in the United States.
COVID-19 represents new challenges for everyone.
With so much still to learn about COVID-19, it can be hard to decide how to return to play for the 2020-2021 rugby season.
As a high school coach in Wisconsin, this can be particularly confusing. Despite re-opening early, the number of cases in the state remains relatively low and are not overwhelming hospitals. This has led to the state governing body for youth sports to re-open for the Fall season.
It’s thus not surprising that many players and coaches are keen to get back to training and league competition. And with other sports returning, there is indirect pressure for rugby to follow suit.
However, the physical safety of my family and the student athletes is paramount. Rugby is a low-equipment, high-contact sport and we have very little data right now on how this affects infection and transmission rates among athletes.
We also don’t know much about transmission rates from infected players to family members, teachers, non-rugby playing friends and coaches.
A colleague said to me recently that “If scrums are not safe, then maybe rugby is not safe”. That comment really struck me hard.
If football is not safe, is rugby?
Yesterday a COVID-19-positive student was identified in pre-season high school football conditioning in a neighboring school district.
Football is also a high-contact sport so it’s a good comparison for rugby.
In this case, the possibility of COVID-19 transmission from a single player during (presumably) non-contact conditioning was enough for the school district to suspend not just football but also dance, cheer, soccer, softball, basketball and volleyball.
College football programs have also been struck with similar issues. Numerous pre-season programs are self-reporting dozens of infected and quarantined athletes including Louisiana State University and Clemson.
Rugby has less equipment and more close contact than football. In an average high school match in Wisconsin there are nearly 200 “close contact” events: 90 tackles, 70 rucks, 15 scrums and 7 lineouts.
Without pads and helmets, COVID-19 transmission is likely to be higher in rugby than in football.
With all this in mind, I have made the difficult decision to not coach rugby this Fall and Spring. I see no compelling reason for returning to play that justifies the risk of infection with COVID-19 and/or transmitting COVID-19 to others.
Although I have been laboring about this decision for some time, it seems I am not the only one. Other coaches in my network have cancelled their season for similar reasons or are anxiously awaiting word from their league/conference.
I am very, very grateful for their words of support and encouragement.
These are very prestigious sports organizations and teams and I hope our schools eventually follow these examples. Otherwise, we’ll see more and more cases of infection due to unsafe sporting practices.
Rugby coaches can lead the way on safety
Despite the history of the sport, rugby is serious about safety. For example, we have been way ahead in concussion awareness and prevention for at least a decade where other sports are still debating the issue.
So going backwards on safety is not an option for rugby. It’s not an option for me. We’ve made too much progress in this area.
Instead, now is the time to “lean in” on safety and set a strong example for other sports.