Tackling Bans Are Wrongheaded

You can't eliminate risk from sport, but you can mitigate the risks.

Down. And then out.

Photographer: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Last weekend, Liverpool played Manchester City in an English soccer cup final. About 18 minutes into the game two Liverpool players banged heads going for the same ball. About six minutes later one of them, Mamadou Sakho, fell over like a drunken baby giraffe when defending his goalmouth, and was immediately led off the pitch by the Liverpool doctor. The player was furious, hurling a water bottle away in anger and then sitting in the stands hidden beneath a jacket, apparently in tears. Arguably, the defender's exit cost his team (and mine) the game and lost them the trophy. But it was still the correct thing to do.

The debate about how to curb head injuries in sport, particularly in American football and rugby, is important. But the conclusion that seems to be gaining popularity in those two sports -- protect players by banning as much as tackling as is possible -- feels misguided at best and downright dangerous at worst.

More than 70 doctors and health-care professionals wrote an open letter this week calling for tackling to be banned in school rugby in the U.K. Last week, the eight Ivy League U.S. football coaches agreed to abolish full-contact hits in regular-season practice sessions. As a former (not very good) teenage rugby player, I'm concerned that if the techniques to tackle safely aren't learned and honed either as a youngster or in less competitive environments, there's more risk of serious injury as players progress to a higher level. Imagine imposing a 50 miles-per-hour speed limit on Formula 1 cars on their practice laps; and then expecting the drivers to navigate the track at three or four times those speeds in the actual race. It just wouldn't make sense.

You can't eliminate danger from most sports, but you can mitigate the risks, as the safety history of motorsport shows. By 1960, 30 Formula 1 drivers had died in just 10 years; a further 37 lost their lives from 1961 to 1980, with 10 fatalities in the 15 years to 1995. Jackie Stewart, one of the sport's biggest names between 1968 and 1973, reckoned racing drivers had a two-in-three chance of dying, and was a catalyst for improving safety.

Since 1996, the sport has suffered just four fatalities. Proper crash barriers replaced bales of hay; metal fuel tanks with a high fire risk were abolished in favour of puncture-proof bladders, which these days are made of military-grade Kevlar. Fire-resistant clothing and helmets, survival cockpits built into the chassis, and rules enforcing a maximum five-second escape time from the driving seat have all made the sport safer. Closed cockpits, which might have saved the most recent victim, Jules Bianchi, last year, are still being reviewed.

Rugby has also introduced initiatives to improve player safety. Since last year, medics take any player with a potential head injury off the pitch for a 10 minute assessment including memory, cognitive and balance tests. No player showing signs of concussion is allowed to return to the game, and even those deemed to be fine have to undergo two further clinical assessments in the two days following the match.

Of  course, the risks highlighted by tackling opponents are as much from repeated hits as individual injuries. It's not an entirely satisfying answer to those wanting urgent action, but better data collection to properly understand the risks players are taking with their brains would make for a more informed debate. Brandi Chastain, who played for the U.S. at the 1999 Women's World Cup, said this week she's bequeathing her brain to medical science:

Can doctors and scientists and neuroscientists look at the brain of someone like me, who has been playing soccer a majority of my life, and really dissect the brain and say, ‘Here’s where we see it beginning?’ Could we then use that information to help say that before the age of 14, it’s not a good idea to head the ball?

Some U.S. colleges, notably Dartmouth, have already introduced restrictions on practice tackling. My Bloomberg View colleague Kavitha Davidson has explained that those teams have seen "none of the negative effects on play that many players, coaches and other football insiders fear from `going soft' in practice." Those players, though, already know how to tackle, even if they get to use those skills less often; if the next generation is deprived of the opportunity to gain experience, they'll be more at risk of injury when match day arrives.

Better in-game monitoring and expelling players at the first sign of injury is one obvious step to improving safety. Training American footballers to copy rugby players, who try to hit opponents with a combination of shoulders and arm wraps rather than leading with their heads is another. Perhaps the National Football League should think seriously about abolishing helmets, which arguably promote a false sense of security. Banning tackling outside of competitive adult games, however, seems to me a knee-jerk solution that will only increase the risks of head injuries over time.  

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