Why I'm glad my son's rugby-playing days were over at 14

Allyson Pollock is professor of public health research and policy at Queen Mary University of London. Her piece below is taken from The Telegraph newspaper, 10th January.

A serious injury on the pitch meant my son never returned to the game, but other children need protecting from the dangers.

I was sitting in my office when the phone call came. It was the school, with bad news: my 14-year-old son Hamish had been seriously injured in a game of rugby.
During a bad tackle, another boy's knee had smashed into his face, breaking his cheekbone and leaving him unconscious. As I rushed to the hospital, I experienced a range of powerful emotions: fear and anxiety for Hamish, anger with the school - and guilt for letting him play.
The previous year his leg had been broken in a rugby tackle and it was against our better judgement that we had allowed him to return to the pitch. But the school had assured us he would not be at risk so we had agreed, little knowing that the chance of injury is greatly increased if another injury has been suffered previously. When I arrived at the hospital he was lying in bed, dazed and bewildered and in so much pain he could not eat or drink except from a straw. His eye hung down and his cheek was caved in. Read the story of 14-year-old Ben, who passed away after concussion during rugby. It was the type of injury that was previously most commonly caused by car crashes where the victim goes through the windscreen, the surgeon told me. Hamish could not return to school for two weeks and - admittedly to my relief - he has never played rugby again. That was nearly 12 years ago, but I remember the shock and fear as if it were yesterday. The trauma of this event set me on my path to establish the truth about rugby injuries. I started by conducting my own study of all the sixth formers in Hamish's school, and what I found was harrowing: most children playing rugby there would be injured at some point, and those injuries were not trivial. They were broken bones, dislocated shoulders, concussions, smashed skulls, ligamentous tears and spinal injuries that can lead to permanent paralysis; injuries so serious they would affect the teenagers for the rest of their lives. I then persuaded the Chief Medical Officer to work with me on a study of injuries during one season in six Scottish schools, and the results were just as worrying.
Yet it was impossible to get anyone to listen or take action. Why, I wondered, do parents who take every step to protect their children from harm leave them exposed on the rugby pitch? Why do fathers stand on the touch lines screaming "tackle!" when tackling is the major cause of injury? Why do players tell us that coaches and referees instruct them not to report their concussions because they won't be able to continue playing? And why do referees allow children to play on with broken bones and concussion or dislocated shoulders? Meanwhile children are under pressure not to complain but to see the dangers as part of the rough and tumble of life. I wrote my book, "Tackling Rugby - What Every Parent Should Know About Injuries" out of sheer frustration at government and sporting unions' neglect of children.
Since then, my mailbox has been filled with disturbing accounts from parents. Here are two from December: "My son has just sustained a large depressed fracture of his skull during rugby training at his prep school. It was a nightmare for us getting the call from the air ambulance. He fitted on the pitch and was in and out of consciousness. He had major surgery to rebuild his skull and remove a very precarious blood clot. It has been the worst nightmare. "I never want him to put on those rugby boots again!" Another read: "My small 15-year-old son is recovering from a hip dislocation and pelvic fracture sustained in a school rugby match three weeks ago.
"We are hopeful he will make a full recovery but it is a long road ahead. The only good thing to come out of his injury is that he will never have to play rugby again." Every day of every week during the rugby season, hundreds of other children are injured on pitches across the UK, but Government bodies, Sport England and local councils are so busy promoting corporate sports in the school curriculum they neglect the harms. And critics of the game are depicted as "nanny statist". But change is in the air. Scientific and medical opinion is coming down more firmly on the harms of concussion and chronic brain injury. There is a small but growing body of research into the effects of head injury and its association with dementia, Parkinson's disease and other neurological problems. This week Michael Carter, a paediatric neurosurgeon at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, said too many youngsters were being injured by the sport. Sporting bodies are also beginning to wake up, and the rugby unions have rushed out a new wave of initiatives around concussion.But we must collect data on all rugby injuries in children. If we don't, we won't know what works. Further research on the long-term impact of injuries is long overdue. The Government is promoting and funding rugby as one of five key sports in the national curriculum. It must put child welfare at the centre of the game. Tackling Rugby - What Every Parent Should Know About Injuries is published by Verso Books Share your opinion on this topic on our forum.
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