For a contact sport without pads, rugby takes concussion seriously

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is the world. There is some must see TV, airing tonight on PBS.

Male Voice in Documentary: In football, one has to expect that, almost every play of every game and every practice, you're going to be hitting the hits against each other. That's the nature of the game.

Werman: Frontline's new documentary "League of Denial", the dark delves into the NFL's response to the inherent danger of brain injuries suffered by its players. And that got us thinking, in football, players wear pads and helmets to protect themselves, so what about a contact sport with no pads and helmets, like rugby? Chris Bockman is a freelance journalist based in Southern France, he covers rugby for the BBC and he played it too in his younger days. So, Chris? No helmets in rugby, you'd think the concussion situation would be far worse, is it?

Chris Bockman: I'm not sure it's much worse, but it's certainly one of the most violent sports that you get in this part of the world. And the authorities who deal the bodies who deal with this sport are now trying to take some pretty dramatic action to reduce the risk of concussion and head injuries. I mean, I don't know how familiar you are with rugby, but people who watch it, one of the most kind of famous, most distinguishing parts of the game, is when you have eight players per side to go into a scrum situation, this is when they kind of they're kneeling, and a ball goes through a tunnel between the two opposing sides, it's like a tug-of-war in a sense, and they're both pushing each other and trying to get hold of the ball and kind of hook it back to their own side. When you consider that each player weighs about a hundred kilos, that's 220 pounds, you're looking at around 3,500 pounds pushing at each other, and they're kneeling and their heads are low as well. And when that scrum situation gets unbalanced, as it often does, or there's kind of dirty behavior, the scrum gets pulled down and the heads can collide, they can get crushed, and that's why you get a lot of the concussion and spinal cord injuries. So what they're trying to do is slow the game down a lot more and penalize and really sanction players who don't respect the rules in the scrum. And there is actually one other rule that has been introduced this year as well, and it's called the Five Minute Rule, where by if you do suffer from concussion on the pitch, you can't come back on for five minutes while you're put through a whole bunch of drills and questions about where you are, what's your name, all that kind of stuff. And as rugby veterans say, you know, you can damage your knees and your legs and you can get on with your life, but you only have one brain. And they're trying to get that message across pretty strongly as well right now.

Werman: So it's the international governing body of rugby, the IRBI, I assume, that's trying to kind of take these moves. How aggressive have they been in the effort to kind of re-engineer the whole game of rugby and make it safer?

Bockman: I think they have to for one very strong reason, if they want to get new recruits into the game, obviously school kids playing rugby, you need to have the parents who come and watch their kids playing rugby on the weekend, choose to send their kids to play rugby. I mean, I've seen many, many mothers of young kids who are 11 or 12, terrified, chewing their fingernails to the bone, because they're just scared of their children getting injured in rugby. And so, if the IRB wants to get this sport to promote it even further then they have to really address the issues of injuries.

Werman: Is it possible to ultimately make a sport, whether it's rugby or US professional football, you know, sports that are based on contact and really crushing the other team. Can you make that safe?

Bockman: Well, then, you know, if you have a choice really, you have a game which has aggression in it, which has tough behavior in it, or do you do something which is, you know, touch rugby, where but there's nothing like that, but then you're not going to have people watching it. I mean, can you have a boxing match without people hitting them on the head? But, I can't think of many sports where there isn't some injury that can happen.

Werman: Well, you played rugby as a kid, Chris. You cover the sport now. Would you let your kids play rugby? I mean, if there wasn't this aggressive movement to kind of make it safer?

Bockman: Well, in this part of the world, and this is where I'm in Toulouse. Yeah, it's one of those rare parts of Europe where kids want to grow up to be rugby players rather than professional footballers like David Beckham. So, you'd be really hard pressed to ban your kids from not playing rugby here. Personally, I don't like the idea of being out in January and February watching kids playing rugby. I'd rather it was somewhere where it's a bit warmer.

Werman: Chris Bockman, freelance journalist based in Southern France, covers rugby. Thanks so much for your time.

Bockman: Thank you. Thanks for having me.