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Rugby at the Olympics


Well, I’m at it again. For a two-week period, every two years, I spend all day in front of the TV; riveted by a plethora of obscure athletic events that only capture my interest, during the Olympics. I love to see many of the sports that I already watch, like hockey and beach volleyball, contested at the highest level. However, as I mentioned above, easy access to the sports that I don’t routinely watch, keeps me glued to Olympic coverage the whole day. This year, rugby sevens has grabbed my attention. It would be myopic on my part, and surely insulting to rugby fans around the world, to call the sport “obscure.” I should call it “underappreciated in America.” I’m not going to lie and claim that I watch the sport when it’s not contested in the Olympics, I don’t. I’ve only ever watched a few minutes of rugby on television when I accidentally stay tuned to NBC Sports Net after it finishes its NHL coverage. Following an online search that brought me to the official website of the 2016 Rio Olympics, I came to understand that the type of rugby played there is called “sevens.” Worldrugby.org writes that sevens is a variant of “Rugby Union” rules whereby seven players per team compete, instead of 15. About five minutes into watching my first ever sevens match, I decided that I have a sickness and the only prescription is more rugby. At first, I had some questions, but after seeing a full match, I quickly understood the basic rules. I now know what a “try,” is; and that there is no forward pass. I can see its close relationship to American Football but to me, it’s more exciting. My newfound attraction to rugby comes from the speed and sheer force of the game. I’ve come to realize what I miss about the NFL, the excitement of the run. Experiencing a sevens rugby match feels like watching Ezekiel Elliot or Le’Veon Bell break off a long run on every play. However, in “sevens,” it feels like they are both on the same team, playing at the same time, down seven points, with the clock ticking to zero. The pace is frenetic. Very quickly, another thought popped into my head: concussions. The players barely wear pads and it’s rare to see a player wearing any sort of head protection. Head injuries seemed like a certainty to me. I began to wonder how often they occur? My question was answered almost immediately, and that answer was less than encouraging. Near the end of the first half, Argentina’s Axel Muller buried his shoulder into American Madison Hughes’ head on the way to a successful “try.” Hughes’ dilated pupils and his unblinking eyes struck me as very familiar. I have seen this stunned look on multiple occasions, during each NHL season that I’ve been old enough to remember. Madison Hughes had definitely sustained a concussion. The commentator only briefly hinted at the concussion stating, “That's what it means to put your body on the line.” I’ve heard countless football broadcasters extoll the virtues of this sacrifice. Hockey players are lauded for “putting their body on the line” to block shots. Even shortstops and second basemen in baseball are commended for sacrificing themselves to turn a double play. More recently, however, it appears that sports commentators do consider the long-term risks of concussions more carefully when a player’s bodily sacrifice results in head trauma. However, they must also consider the consequences of alienating the parents of children that will to supply their sport with participants and help ensure its continued existence. It was reported by Sports Illustrated in 2015 that participation in high school football has been declining for more than half a decade. The NFL front offices do not need the play-by-play commentators they indirectly employ, scaring off the newest crop of athletes. I was curious how the commentators would relay the situation as the game continued. After hardly three minutes of sitting out, Madison Hughes had, according to play-by-play announcer, Bill Seward, “Shaken off the cobwebs.” This sentence alone was just as common as “getting his bell rung” ten to fifteen years ago, during any NFL or NHL broadcast. Presently, however, if a player who displays even the slightest hint of a head injury is allowed back into the same game without a proper medical exam, the media launches into a frenzy. “Did the team doctor OK this?” “Is this safe?” Both commentators did not ask these questions during the Olympic rugby broadcast. In fact, In the second half, an Argentine player hit Hughes again, this time shoulder to shoulder. He struggled to stand up and rejoin the play. Seward did not mention any “concussion protocol” although USA Rugby does have one, and they certainly violated it. USA Rugby’s concussion policy states, “If a player shows symptoms of a concussion before, during or after a match, that player must be removed from play immediately, not to return during that match, no exceptions.” Although I am not a doctor, it was obvious to see what had happened to Hughes. In fact, just hours after the match ended, I found no mention of the injury in any post-game coverage online or on TV. Coincidentally, I did find a Washington Post article that mentioned Madison Hughes. It stated that while at Dartmouth College, he was asked to test a new piece of technology that has generated headlines over the past year. Engineers at Dartmouth have invented a mechanical tackling dummy for their football team that is intended to reduce head injuries in practice. They asked Hughes (who did not play football) to tackle it. I found this to be strange considering what I had just witnessed. I started to wonder if NBC’s coverage of rugby and the promotion of the sport had something to do with the ignoring of Hughes’ head injury. Obviously, rugby is not one of the so-called “big four” (NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA) in the United States. Its popularity it isn’t even close to that of soccer, which some might argue belongs in the “big four” over hockey (they might have a point, although it pains me to admit). There are serious monetary repercussions for those leagues when they decline in popularity, just ask the NHL. In 2005, following the NHL lockout, ESPN declined to pick up their option to broadcast the NHL. According to a 2005 article by AdAge.com writer Rich Thomaselli, ESPN found that their replacement programming for the NHL earned them equal ratings and cost them less. In a 2012 interview with blogger Ed Sherman, former ESPN Senior Vice President Vince Doria said, "If you go to our radio and television shows, there's not a lot of hockey talk. It doesn't seem like there's a lot of yammer out there to give us hockey talk.” One can infer from these statements that ESPN found that the lack of popularity in the NHL was not worth the cost to broadcast the league. This, in turn, cost the NHL even more in viewership and sponsorship revenues because the channels that replaced ESPN were not nearly as widely subscribed to. Rugby does not draw a considerable share of US viewers for its events either. For example, sportsmediawatch.com reported that the 2015 USA Rugby sevens tournament, broadcast on NBC drew a 0.8 rating. An NHL game, featuring the Pittsburg Penguins against the Chicago Blackhawks that same day, on the same network, drew a 1.3 rating. Experts are quick to label the NHL a “niche sport,” yet it still outdrew sevens rugby. As far as the US is concerned, rugby, is not a “has been," it’s a “never was.” This means that if NBC wants to grow the sport’s popularity, focusing on its positive aspects is vital. Perhaps mentioning dangers of the sport, such as head injuries would be detrimental to the future popularity of the sport. Questioning a team’s decision to allow a concussed player back into the game, immediately highlights one potential danger of playing rugby. The relationship between the sport of rugby, its coverage in the US and its risk of head injuries motivated me to research some information on concussions in the sport. Since the version of rugby that is played at the Olympics is “sevens,” a variation of “Rugby Union.” I decided to find information specific to “Union” rules. I consulted England’s national rugby website covering “the national governing body for grassroots and elite rugby in England.” They cited a 2012 study, which stated that in professional Rugby Union, there will be one concussion suffered by one of the player’s involved, every six games. Considering how violent this sport appears, that doesn’t seem like a lot until you compare it to the NFL. One can also present this stat by saying that 3.9 concussions occur for every 1000 hours of rugby played in the professional ranks. By comparison, the NFL is 0.2. Yes, you read that correctly, the NFL’s concussion per 1,000 player hours is point two. From this information, one can calculate that one concussion occurs in the NFL for every 5000 player hours. I struggled to find an exact definition for “player hours” but from what I can tell, it represents hours of participation in game action for each player on the field in each sport. For example, if seven rugby players on each team, participated in 14 minutes of play (the length of one sevens match) together, they would accumulate 3.26 “player hours” or 196 total minutes played divided by 60 minutes. Although it may be difficult to trust either stat, especially one self-reported by the NFL or Rugby Union, it makes sense that rugby players sustain more concussions while they play, because they do not wear helmets. Additionally, action also occurs more consistently in rugby, because the game does not stop so often. According to the Wall Street Journal, an average NFL game contains only 11 minutes of “action time” or time from when the ball is snapped to when the ref blows the whistle. A rugby sevens match consists of two seven-minute halves where the play is mostly continuous. In spite of the fact that rugby appears more dangerous to the naked eye, experts posit that rugby lags behind other leagues, including the NFL, when it comes to managing concussions. According to a 2015 Bloomberg article by Danielle Rossingh and Makiko Kitamura, Rugby Union is finally taking steps to institute policies regarding concussions that the NHL and NFL have instituted more than five years ago. Fears of a class-action lawsuit like the one recently faced by the NFL is a major motivator for these changes. Rugby Union appears to be increasing its recognition that the sport can also cause lasting damage to its participants. This brought me back to NBC’s intentions and rugby’s future in the US. It really seems like NBC is trying to promote rugby, and why not? Besides its similarities to football, NBC can use the crossover between players of the two sports. The New England Patriots allowed their safety and special teams player, Nate Ebner, to play for team USA Rugby in the Olympics. Additionally, former Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne crossed over to the NFL for a few games last season. If NBC does want rugby sevens gain in popularity in the US, why would they highlight concussion issues in the sport, when they already have to deal with it in the NFL and NHL. Ethically, it would seem like the right thing to do as the sport does come with concussion risks. The question I would ask avid rugby fans is this: Do you want rugby to explode in popularity in the United States, although it would inevitably result in calls to change the sport to prevent head injuries?


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