Heading for pain.

Photographer: David Rogers/Getty Images

Rugby Has Lessons for the Two Other Types of Football

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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On Sunday evening, almost 90,000 fans turned out at London's Wembley Stadium to see Ireland defeat Romania by 44-10 in the Rugby World Cup, an attendance record for the tournament. There's a lot that two of the world's other most popular sports could learn from the rugby competition; America's brand of football could use some education in how to stop its players from injuring their brains, while the world of soccer is badly in need of lessons in manners, civility and respect.

Last month, rugby's officials introduced new rules governing "Head Injury Assessment." Any player suspected of suffering concussion has to undergo a 10-minute off-the-field assessment including cognitive, balance and memory tests. If there's a suspicion of injury, they have to quit. Even if a player is deemed fit to carry on, he then has to undergo a clinical assessment immediately after the match, and again within 48 hours.

Moreover, the medics conducting the off-pitch assessments have immediate access to the television footage of the incident, allowing them to view action replays to help guide their judgments. Rugby's governing body reckons 56 percent of players suffering concussion used to carry on playing; the new regulations have driven that down to 12 percent.

In the U.S., the National Football League is trying to reach a $1 billion settlement with a class of almost 5,000 former players suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Although the NFL has been proactive in tweaking the rules to reduce the risks from concussions, including off-field medics watching television footage to identify players at risk, perhaps the most significant step it could take would see players abandoning their helmets, which may be responsible for giving combatants a false sense of security. 

Rugby players don't wear helmets (although some don fabric scrum caps, because years of scrummaging can be hard on the ears), so they spend a ton of time learning how to tackle properly, reducing their susceptibility to head injuries. American football players, by contrast, continue to use their heads as battering rams; John York, who chairs the NFL's health and safety advisory commission, said earlier this year he "can see a time without helmets," although "it's not around the corner."

(Transport for London took a similar approach when it introduced its wildly successful bicycle-hire scheme in the capital; various cycling associations argued that insisting on helmets would lead to riders taking more risks on the roads. The more invulnerable we feel, the more dangerous we are to ourselves.)

The sport with the most to learn from rugby is the beautiful game played with a round ball that everyplace outside of the U.S. knows as football. In rugby, the referee's word is law; dissent just isn't tolerated. Because players talking back are instantly punished (and have been for years,) there's almost zero disobedience. The tournament's referees have microphones that are permanently transmitting any and all comments the umpire makes to the players to the television audience -- and any comments the players might make to the officials.

In 1989, English soccer referee David Elleray wore a microphone when officiating at a game between Arsenal and Millwall. The resulting documentary set a record for the number of bleeps the program makers had to overlay on the soundtrack to mask the swearing directed at Elleray; the low point came when Arsenal captain Tony Adams accused the referee of being a cheat -- a slur for which he got a talking-to, but no further sanction.

A quarter-century later, soccer discipline is in a sorrier state than ever. You don't need any training in reading lips to work out the profanity directed at match officials as the players voice their displeasure at any decision that doesn't go their way. It's as if the corruption at FIFA headquarters has infected the behavior on the pitch -- which in turn is echoed on the terraces by foul-mouthed fans.

There's a saying that football is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, while rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen. If soccer referees adopted the zero-tolerance policies of their rugby counterparts, it would only take a handful of matches when penalties reduced teams from 11 starting players to just a handful of participants for the abuse to stop. And if the NFL banned helmets, maybe player behavior would adapt in ways that limit the tragedy of brain injuries that damage players long after they've hung up their boots. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net