Attitudes towards head injuries and masculinity in rugby needs to change

South Africa v Wales - Quarter Final: Rugby World Cup 2015

Controversial movie ‘Concussion’ is due to be released this winter, starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who discovered the correlation between head injuries and brain damage in American football.

The movie caused uproar in the National Football League upon its reveal, and even led to Sony ‘altering’ the film to lessen the condemnation it received.

The film raised an interesting question of how, even despite the incredible technological advances and awareness surrounding the issue, does health continue to be sidelined in the physically empowering game?


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Of course, the NFL will always be in denial of such issues, but with the recent concussions in rugby of Wales' George North, or the retirement of teammate Ashley Smith at just 28 for similar reasons, the question is also: will we see a change in the game of rugby?

Well, the short answer is probably not. When North suffered his injury, he said the benefit that came from his knock-out was the awareness it created for the public, almost as if to say suffering a concussion was a good thing.

The Financial Times reported that the 'Aviva Premiership saw 10.5 concussions per 1,000 player hours in 2013-14, up from 6.7 a year earlier and more than double the NFL’s standards' - and the list of players suffering from head injuries and continuing to play on is only increasing.

This is a statistic unaffected by last year's ‘return to play’ protocol, introduced by the RFU and RFA. This year, new regulations introduced at the World Cup allowed match day doctors to remove a player from the field for any reason, and were also allowed up to ten minutes to decide whether the player was fit to return.

It is how we, as a society in support of a masculine and alpha male orientated game, perceive a correlation between failure and being unmanly as to why concussions remain to be such an issue; that carrying on regardless of health concerns or injuries are attributed to doing a good job, or playing the game right.

New Zealand v Argentina - IRB RWC 2011 Quarter Final 4

It’s a history of injury that has featured heavily in the American movie scene, promoting the image that injury is good for you, and if you don’t carry on, like North did against the London Wasps, then you aren’t man enough.

To draw back to the original point of concussion in the NFL, and the comparisons it draws with rugby, the debates usually rely on the NFL’s use of armor and the rugby players’ lack of it. 

This doesn’t represent the social norm, but the small minority that share the viewpoint masculinity = power, and anything otherwise, do not belong.


When we attribute weakness with femininity, it’s no wonder NFL and rugby stars still make the headlines for being gay, or that the lad culture epidemic features so heavily in sports societies.

To elaborate on the gender perception of weakness would be another article, but it’s an important factor that never receives the spotlight that it needs.

The work that is being done by scientists and health professionals into concussions and its repercussions is a good start, but there needs to be a change to the rules of rugby, with great consequences if not followed. Spearing or tackles above the collarbone should warrant harsher punishments for the players who choose to use them.

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Competitors themselves naturally dislike yielding or taking themselves out of play, even with health concerns. Whether this is an issue of a desire to win, or to not be perceived as weak, remains questionable.

All we can hope for is that the awareness and hypotheses of head injuries remains at large and doesn’t succumb into the depths of irrelevancy, before it is too late for our generation of great players.

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