Spectacle vs safety in sport

24 Jan 2019 Posted by

I’ve spent the last three days in Paris, for two rugby related meetings. The first was with the French Rugby Federation (FFR) and the LNR, which is the body that runs the professional competition in France (Top 14). That meeting was to discuss injury data, player welfare and future collaboration between the Union, the professional competition and World Rugby on injury prevention strategies.

The second was with the NFL equivalent of the World Rugby player welfare team – their VP of Health and Safety, their Chief Medical Officer, and their lead researcher. This meeting was about sharing ideas, successes and failures, and possible things we might learn from one another. They were particularly interested in our high level approach towards modifying the tackle based on our research, which I’ll touch on briefly below.

It was genuinely fascinating to see the data they’ve gathered into risk factors for concussion, and to compare their approach to ours. I know they’re soon going announce some of their injury data for the latest season, and some future initiatives may follow that announcement and the upcoming Superbowl, so perhaps I’ll go into more detail on that when they make their announcements, because the Rugby-NFL comparison is legitimately one of the most interesting comparative data sets and environments out there.

Anyway, then on the train from Paris back to London, I read this article by Paul Rees in The Guardian, in which he bemoans the current state of rugby, its physicality, its “obsession with speed and bulk”. In it, he talks about how the ‘brutality’ of the sport has risen, and coaches instruct bigger and faster players than ever before to exploit size imbalances that may ultimately cause injury.

On this concept, there is no data – we tried to find a link between size imbalance and injury, and couldn’t. I suspect that it’s too complex, because often the smaller player is making the ‘riskier’ types of tackles at higher speed than a big player, and their opponent tends to be similarly sized too, so it’s very difficult to find. Nevertheless, as a theory, it’s worth evaluating.

As an aside, at the afore-mentioned meeting with the FFR and LNR from France, they spoke about a law they’ve introduced for youth rugby where the referee can penalize a ball carrier for “charging”, if they don’t attempt to take evasive action. In other words, if the ball carrier does try to play like a battering ram, he/she can be penalized, which is really interesting (I am, as another aside, really impressed by the creativity and ‘lateral’ thinking that the French bring to the injury issue).

I don’t know exactly how well this works, or how successful it would be in adult rugby, but it’s intriguing. I imagine it works like in basketball, but the difference there is that in basketball you don’t have contact as a regular part of play, so it may not translate well. But I think it’s clever and creative, and so it interests me.


Spectacle vs safety: “Game’s gone soft!”

The article raised a few of the issues we had spent the last three days discussing in both those meetings, so it was timely and I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the issue.

First, the tension between spectacle and safety is common to many sports. When you make changes for aesthetic reasons you (usually, but not always) compromise safety. What people want to see is speed and power and attrition. Risk tends to be proportional to those attributes.

The corollary is that when sports introduce safety initiatives, they invariably “take away” one of those elements. They change the nature of the physicality (tackle rules in rugby and the NFL, for instance), or they lower the speed. Fans’ reaction to the former is telling – “Killing the game”, “Making it soft”, “Guys in suits and ties should leave our sport alone”. Or in the words of Billy V, “Did he play?”

One of the things I ‘struggle with’ (which is to say, it annoys me), is that the same media who write about the problems of risk sometimes criticize the attempts made to reduce it. That’s a generalization of course – there are some who are very consistent and thus constructive, but it’s not unusual to have one person criticize A and B, when B is the solution to A. Certainly, you’ll regularly find the same newspaper featuring two columns or opinion pieces where the second undermines the first. Not that this is surprising, and such is life, I suppose.

In any event, spectacle vs safety, that’s the tension, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I believe that the biggest current player welfare battle is a cultural one that rejects change because it is perceived to affect the “spectacle”. The crowds have decided what they want, it is ‘sacred’, and so changing it means overcoming a lot of inertia.


The changing game and an interesting paradox

So the argument made in the article is topical and statistically accurate. That is, law changes in rugby in the last five years have often been designed designed to increase the speed of the game, reduce the number of stoppages, and make the stoppages that do occur shorter.

There is data to support this – minutes of active ball in play time is up, which has consequences – even if the rate of tackles (as in, a tackle every 10 seconds, on average) were to stay the same, a 15% increase in the ball in play time would result in 15% more tackles.

As it is, the tackle rate has gone up independent of ball in play, so what we’ve seen in the European competitions in the last five years is a pretty large increase in the number of tackles, driven in part by more ball in play time and in part by new tactical approaches that speed the sport up and increase tackle frequency.

This of course leads to the theory that the sport is becoming more dangerous – if tackles are the leading cause of injury, and you have 20% more of them, then injury risk rises, right?

And here’s the paradox. I do enjoy these paradoxical findings because they force us to confront our theories. So chew on this one:

  • If tackles per match have risen from say, 170 per match five years ago to 210 per match now, that’s an increase of 23%.
  • But let’s also say that your injury rates don’t change (we know that they haven’t). What would that mean?

It would mean that the likelihood of an injury per tackle has gone down as you’ve added those 40 tackles per match. So, per 100 or per 1000 tackles, you’re now less likely to be injured in a tackle than before. And this is the situation – injury surveillance studies show that injury rates have not changed over the same period as the tackle numbers have risen.

So this is a conundrum, and I don’t really know how to explain it. Could it be that the players are now “protected” in the tackle because of the very conditioning that has made them bigger and stronger? In other words, perhaps the theory is upside down?

Could it be that the evolution of the game has resulted in an increase in tackles that are safer? Maybe as frequency rises, the characteristics of the typical tackle change in a direction that makes them less injurious (per 1000 tackles)? Kind of like how adding smaller marbles to a bucket would reduce the average marble size (I lean towards this latter theory, personally).

What we don’t know is whether the most intense of these tackles is now riskier than it used to be, so that there are say 95 tackles that have slightly lower risk than before, but five have higher risk. We know for instance that the average injury takes longer to recover from today than it did five years ago, so something is changing, but it’s not really clear what. Or why. And this makes a solution tricky.


The solution, from first principles

What it doesn’t change is that the solution to the injury issues, in particular the “collision injury” like concussion, can come from one of two approaches. You either:

  1. Reduce the frequency of the thing that you know to be higher risk, or
  2. Lower the risk of that thing when it happens, to make the overall risk lower.

The latter is the approach that World Rugby has adopted with the high tackle sanctions since 2017. The idea is to make tackling relatively safer by bringing the height of the tackler down. This was the result of research into which factors in the tackle increase the risk of head injury, and I explained this in a few articles last year, one of which you can read here.

There’s some debate about how best to achieve the changes, but I’d like to think that the early signs from around the world are positive enough that we should consolidate and be even more ‘aggressive’ in that approach. And indeed, that’s what has drawn the NFL’s attention, and perhaps in future the approach will be expanded.

However, taking the risk events out IS an option that might be explored – quite how you bring down the speed is a slightly more difficult proposition than bringing the height down (and the latter is difficult enough). We have spoken with a number of coaches about this issue, and a few ideas are in play, but none has grabbed us as obvious and useful at this stage.

I’ve said this a few times, and it’s a theme of that “Nudge” presentation I shared last year, but the key is, what is the smallest change you can make to the sport that will achieve the desired outcome?

That’s important because the spectacle does matter – you can’t change the DNA of the sport, and “contact” is part of rugby (and the NFL), so its stakeholders will reject changes to contact that are deemed too large. One can argue that their opinions shouldn’t matter, but if you are making changes, no matter which “lever” you use, you probably need the stakeholders (coaches, players, referees etc) to actually use those levers. So you can’t just proceed without factoring their opinions in. But you also can’t be paralyzed by cultural and cognitive barriers that they may set up, however well-intentioned.

So basically, it’s about risk-reward, upside-downside, and finding the thing that changes one side enough, without changing the other too much.

The pursuit continues…


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