As an American, my first exposure to the sport of rugby came in college, when my university had both men’s and women’s social teams. The impression those teams made on me was not good – the sport seemed to be an incomprehensible mud-wrestling match between brawlers that invariably ended in a pub night, characterized by heavy drinking and bawdy songs. Needless to say, at that time, it was not a sport I would ever have considered appropriate for children, and certainly not one I would’ve aspired to have my own son or daughter play.
But now, years later, as I have come to know true rugby, as it is played all over the world, including here in Pasadena, I have completely changed my mind about the sport. I realize that my early misconceptions about the game were totally wrong-headed stereotypes, and misconceptions that are shared by many Americans who lack any other exposure to rugby. Yes, playing rugby can be muddy, and occasionally bloody – but that is about it as far as physical damage goes. At a time when growing attention is being paid to the risks of head injury and traumatic brain damage caused by contact sports like football, rugby emerges as a safe and fun alternative sport for our children.
As a mother, I can categorically state that my son will not be permitted to play football – be it Peewee, Pop Warner, or high school football, unless the sport undergoes radical change regarding the risk of head trauma and brain damage. But I do recognize that some of our children, especially young boys like mine, relish the thought of playing highly physical contact sports. Rugby has emerged as a terrific alternative to football for parents who are concerned as I am about the risks of football.
Because rugby is played without any pads, helmets, or protective gear other than a mouth guard, it can look far more violent than it truly is – leading to more misconceptions about the sport. Cuts, scrapes, and bruises certainly happen, but concussion, broken bones, and other serious injuries are rare by comparison to football.
And unlike football, where head injury is prevalent due to the helmet-to-helmet contact that is at times encouraged and occurs on virtually every play somewhere on the field, rugby considers hitting with the head both completely illegal and not in keeping with the spirit of the game. Any contact above the shoulders is cause for an immediate penalty, which may include ejection from the game. As a mother, this makes me feel very positive about the prospect of my son playing rugby, a statement I could not make about football.
In recognition of parent’s concerns about injury, USA Rugby guidelines mandate non-contact play for children until the age of 10, at which time contact play is gradually introduced. While football offers non-contact play for small children, they are offered contact play much earlier. But more importantly, while rugby promotes the skilled tackle, the culture of football promotes the “big hit.” I do not want my son playing a game where the highlight reels on ESPN feature bone-crushing head-to-head contact and thinking that is play he should emulate.
In addition, watching the Pasadena RFC team, with its roster of players who are well-respected members of the community, including doctors, lawyers, business owners, and Cal Tech engineers, I realize that rugby is indeed “a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen,” as the famous saying goes. It is a sport I would be proud to see my son play, both for the character it builds, and the physical fitness and neurological safety it provides.
I am not alone in feeling this way. Most, if not all, the parents of my son’s peers, are dead set against their children playing football, yet I have heard none express any such reservations about rugby. In fact, when other parents are aware that I have a family connection to the Pasadena RFC, they ask over and over when a comprehensive youth program is going to begin. They, like I, recognize the need to offer our athletically inclined kids a sport that is fun and safe.