When I first started playing rugby, my parents were worried I was at risk of serious injury. I argued that sports like hockey—which both my brother and sister played—or football were more dangerous, despite the padding used. After a lot of pleading, my parents reluctantly agreed to let me play.
As I grew older and past my rugby prime, I began to wonder whether rugby is, in fact, safer than football. However, based on my experience and some investigative research, I can conclude that rugby is safer.
The first thing rugby players are taught is how to hit properly without equipment. Players are supposed to aim their shoulders for the opponent’s hip, wrap their arms around the knees, and keep their heads to either side of the torso in order to prevent the opposing players from falling on their heads. Theoretically, this tactful approach to tackling reduces the likelihood of serious injury.
While proper tackling is also taught in football, it is not emphasized to the same extent, and does not require the same amount of precision. This is because football players have padding for protection in the case of a poorly executed tackle by an opposing player.
Conversely, rugby players are constrained by their lack of padding. A rugby tackler will not run full tilt at the opposition, as he or she, too, wants to avoid injury upon impact. Football players seem to believe that their padding is a magical layer thatprotects them from the force of the hit. While it is true that padding absorbs some of the impact, these chronic forces still take a toll on players’ bodies. It is almost as if the padding solicits more vicious hitting.
Protective headgear also presents another issue in football. Helmets are sometimes supported behind the neck with a neck-roll, which, in principal, makes it “safer” for football players to use their heads as a weapon in a tackle. While concussions are a hot topic in football, particularly in the NFL, efforts to reduce head injuries haven’t panned out in practice—players are still just as vulnerable to head injuries.
Finally, it is statistically proven that football players sustain more injuries. A study published in 2008 by The British Journal of Sports Medicine found 847 injuries occurred in 73,834 Collegiate Rugby Union practices and games. These numbers were lower than rates reported by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Injury Surveillance System for American football.
The lack of padding not only makes rugby a more controlled and safe sport. In fact, it has other rules that enforce a safer game overall. For instance, any semblance of a high tackle results in a penalty. In stark contrast, changes in football rules often create a dangerous environment. For example, the NCAA implemented a rule that if a player’s helmet comes off during a play, then the play is immediately stopped. While this seems to promote a safer environment, teams have begun to use this rule strategically. Helmets are now being intentionally ripped off of players’ heads to stop the play, leading to some perilous head and neck injuries, and sullying the rule’s original purpose.
Put simply, football can be an uncontrolled game. Players are more likely to throw their bodies around with the safety of padding, and the rules are failing at making it safer for the players. In the future, if my children ask me to play rugby, I’ll give them the blessing. Football on the other hand, is just too physical. My parents made the right call.