Head injuries and the dangerous duplicity of binary thinking
Leicester lock Will Spencer was issued a red card Sunday after his shoulder was the point of contact with Tommy Taylor’s head. The incident and its aftermath may help professional Rugby Union find its overdue and much-needed inflection point this week. Today, much to his credit, Leicester interim head coach Geordan Murphy directly addressed the situation and his ill-considered, intemperate post-game remarks. Further, this tweet from the hardest of hard men, Jacques Burger, citing an excellent piece by Andy Goode, may change some minds. In several podcasts this week, I heard a degree of honest reckoning with the issues I have not heard previously.
We all should be watching to see if this might be a signal coaches and players start to take some responsibility for leading the changes needed for protecting players while maintaining the physicality of this most physical of sports. This story is just beginning, but for the first time I wonder if a broad, sustained momentum may be emerging. I hope so, because the game has been on the verge of locking itself in a building and playing with matches.
After Spencer was sent off, the ‘debate’ was instantaneous, culminating in the media-driven and media-friendly comment by Murphy. One would think Referee Ian Tempest had somehow contrived the situation himself. ‘Game’s gone soft.’ ‘Ruining the game.’ The Twitterati went nuts - though, to be fair, a Twitter poll The Times’ Alex Lowe revealed roughly half agreed a red card was appropriate. Further, the media focus on Murphy’s post-game remarks was poor form considering the battle Leicester gave Wasps with one less player. The game was not ruined as a contest, and attention should have been focused on the quality of the game and Leicester’s effort.
Nearly everyone had an instant hot take, so maybe I can offer a more considered take. I refuse to engage in the lazy, cynical “he’s a tall player” excuses, and focus on an area where I hope some shared understanding could be forged. Eggchasers podcaster and television reporter Tim Cocker hit on the issue of consistency all day on Monday. To paraphrase, “the application of the law needs to be consistent or it otherwise hinders progress and breeds discontent.” While he is right, I suggest he is only partially right. One would have a watertight argument other inconsistencies also hinder progress and breed discontent.
Will television commentators and journalists consistently ask why player behaviour, and the coaching that shapes it, makes this issue so prevalent and disruptive to the game? Everyone should read Alex Shaw on this situation. The difficult, no-win referee decisions and stoppage in play are not the problem. Players getting hit in the head at such a rate is the problem. The data are clear and damning about player safety and the prevalence of head injuries sustained by impact at the tackle. Instead of asking players and coaches if they are unhappy with the issuance of a card, why not ask whether and when we should expect fewer of these incidents? And instead of wandering into the fog and contriving another form of sanction to lessen its impact on the game, focus on how to reduce the occurrence of such damaging collisions. We can circle back to the contortions about sanction after we have succeeded in addressing the problem.
Or even more pointedly, in this instance why not focus on Tommy Taylor? A hit like the one he received could be career-ending. Dominic Ryan’s forced retirement is right in front of us. The first lawsuit against a top English club, Sale Sharks, is underway. One more concussion and All Black Ben Smith, one of the best players of this decade, may face a serious question of whether to continue playing. BT Sports commentator Ugo Monye was praised by many for being balanced in his remarks as the TMO and referee conferred. He did discuss both sides of the referee decision, but he said not one word about why players are not coming into contact differently. If that is balanced, the bar is too low (and this point is not a criticism of him in particular). If rugby governing organisations, clubs, coaches, and players care about player welfare, their actions should reflect such care. The media’s job is larger than serving fans, and should extend to holding people to account when needed.
Arguing for consistency from one side but not the other is a corrosive approach to the issue, as it carries an implied ‘benefit of the doubt’ to the status quo. This illogic suggests the new interpretations are the problem. “Let the boys play,” we are implored. Responsibility is a funny thing, as it has a tendency to disappear as soon as people start talking about it. Head injuries have the potential to be an existential crisis to rugby, at least at the top levels. Yet the reflexes in the public discourse tend to put the full onus of consistency on the referees and application of the laws, while almost never raising the question of why coaching, training, and player-driven changes to tackle technique are not adjusting to a legitimate imperative to better protect players. Twenty years ago my coach Big Jack, who played lock himself, would never tolerate one of his locks putting himself in a position to be red-carded the way Spencer did. I can imagine him screaming from the sidelines, “Goddammit, you can’t go in high like that. You know better.” He also would have said, “That is not what we practice.” He couldn’t say that about the current game.
We have spent a decade genuflecting over the impact Rugby League coaching techniques have had on defence, but I am pretty certain its impact also has exacerbated this particular problem. Maybe ask a few of these lauded defence coaches about how they are changing their approach to training as it relates to collision-type of contact. [Side note: we also should have a line of sight into the amount of full-contact training sessions these players are subjected to, and note limits on such contact in the NFL.] For those who would protest about the new dictates and how hard it is to change, I have watched the game adapt very quickly to changes to the scrum and breakdown. Changes should be visible, or hard questions need to be asked.
Then versus now. Watch a game from 15 years ago, and take note of the number and severity of collisions. The game is being played at pace and ferocity by larger, faster, stronger men. The tactics have changed on both attack and defence. Full-force collisions are dramatically more frequent, and with a generation of professionalism under its belt, rugby has gone full gladiator. “Are you not entertained?” we are told, as player after player is carted off for disposal when no longer useful. Is it unreasonable to think Ben Kay, in his role as commentator (and I think he is very good), might reflect on his experience while we wait two to three minutes for a referee decision? My memory of his work in the loose is full of tackles to the mid-section or lower, but apparently someone his height cannot be expected to replicate such feats today, despite being more fit and precisely trained. I struggle to recall Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Joe Launchbury, Luke Charteris, or other giants being incapable of bending over in order to tackle properly, so why do we have to listen to selective amnesia in these situations? Do we need to cue up the highlights of Courtney Lawes hitting Jules Plisson, Donnacha Ryan levelling Loni Uhila? I have a specific memory of a moment a year or so ago when Maro Itoje, in a situation quite similar to the one Will Spencer faced, managed to both hit the ball carrier with effective force and adjust his body position in order to ensure his tackle was not high. The margins can be fine, but controlled technique separates these examples from Spencer’s misstep.
As I watched the situation play out, I genuinely wished these young men were playing a game in which accidental contact with the head earned a yellow card and red cards were reserved for intentional acts of foul play. The problem is we are not playing such a game. Instead, we are playing a game with people’s lives.