Tackling Character on the Rugby Field

A recent BBC News article reported that ‘more than 70 doctors and academics are calling for a ban on tackling in rugby matches played in UK and Irish schools.’ The rationale behind this call is that the potential long-term damage of head injuries, concussions, and repeated ‘high-impact’ collisions occurring in rugby practices and matches can have long-term consequences for the health of young people playing the sport. The open letter, sent to government ministers, calls for a move to non-contact and touch rugby in schools in England and Ireland.

The counter argument presented is that playing full-contact rugby builds character in young people, and that reducing or watering down the version of the game played also reduces the potential enjoyment and challenge that playing rugby provides.

As someone who played rugby at school and university, and who is part of the Jubilee Centre and involved in the research into character, I find this a very compelling debate. I thoroughly enjoyed my rugby-playing ‘career’, with highlights including representing my Borough at U14 level, and travelling to Western Canada on a school rugby tour at age 16. I was also part of my university halls team which won the inter-mural trophy in my first undergraduate year. I was not a great rugby player, by any stretch, and had to learn to love a sport that I didn’t understand when beginning secondary school. However, I can reflect now that the game taught me a lot about teamwork, about facing challenges, and about determination and resilience. I made great friends on the pitch, many of whom I still socialise with today. I also experienced my fair share of injuries, including a serious concussion during the aforementioned Canadian rugby tour.

The repeated ‘heavy hitting’ of tackling practice and in-game contact were accepted, and often relished, as part and parcel of the game, and as school pupils, we put our trust in the teachers and coaches to train us how to tackle properly so that we didn’t injure ourselves with every tackle that we attempted. This took practice and training, and required self-discipline and courage, but it was never perceived to be dangerous nor damaging, either by me as a player, or by the coaches. I do not have any medical qualifications to support or dismiss the claims of the 70 academics and doctors who have put forward this call today (2nd March 2016), but given that rugby has been taught and played as a full-contact sport for decades in schools across the world, it seems on first view to be an over-reaction.

The paradox, however, is that so does the claim that rugby builds character. Research conducted by the Jubilee Centre (Character Education in UK Schools) reported empirical evidence to contradict widely held beliefs that sport builds character. ‘British students claiming to participate in sporting activities did not perform better than those who said they did not practise sports when asked to respond to moral dilemmas.’ (P. 5). It is important to add that the research only looked at participation in sports in general, not individual sports. Other extra-curricular activities often attributed to building character, such as debating, also failed to significantly influence the results of the moral dilemma tests conducted in this project, whereas pupils who reported to be involved with music, choir and drama activities made moral dilemma choices that were closer to those of the expert panel (p. 16). As the research only looked at sporting activities in general, it is possible for some sports to assist the character building of players, although this correlation is diluted when looking across all sporting participation.

With character development and flourishing a life-long challenge, perhaps that any positive benefit to one’s character through playing challenging sports such as rugby is not realised in the moment, but on later reflection, in a not dissimilar way to any delayed effects of heavy concussion or repeated ‘heavy contact’.

Comments welcomed.

Aidan Thompson, Centre Manager

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