Should tackling be banned in school rugby?

Over 70 ‘experts’ (read University Professors and academics) have signed an open letter arguing that full contact rugby should be banned in schools. The main reason they cite is the risk of suffering short term or long term injuries. It has created a huge media backlash from many who are aghast at even the thought of taking the contact out of rugby – ‘who do these over-zealous protective parents and health and safety officials think they are?’

Now for those that know me, they would be surprised to hear that I actually have sympathy with the argument from the ‘experts’. I love rugby. I have played it and coached it at a variety of levels for many years. I have taught 11 year old girls to start playing rugby, 15  year old boys at club level, and 17 year old women at elite level. But I do think there is something intrinsically wrong with the focus on contact skills. For a start, at school, children do not get a say in whether they participate in PE lessons (unless they forge a note from their mum). And unfortunately there is still too much bad PE teaching which involves children being forced to play full contact (if slightly modified) games against one another. There are always going to be some children who hate the experience and do not have the confidence or physical ability to succeed. And for those of us who have played full contact rugby, being tackled or making a tackle when your mind isn’t fully committed is more likely to result in injury. Forcing children to ‘hit’ one another is in my view morally wrong.

Which brings me on to the other problem with rugby, and which stems from recent developments at the elite level. Rugby is now all about the physicality, not the skill. The current six nations is pretty dull primarily because it is dominated by defence and therefore needs ‘battering rams’ (such as Jamie Roberts) to be able to break up defences. We celebrate the ‘big hit’ and ‘smashes’ rather than successful tackles. There’s an excellent blog post here about the way in which the language we use filters down to the way that rugby is often taught at a youth level. And often with little regard to the young players involved.

My other experience with coaching young players is that their core strength is often incredibly poor. They are unable to hold the plank position for more than several seconds. And if they haven’t got core strength, and an equal ability to control their limbs (think of the average gangly 15 year old boy), then they’re not going to be able to control their body sufficiently well in a tackle situation.

Finally, there’s the huge size differential at youth level. Yes, there are differences in size in adult level, but the difference is that at a young level, it is easier for the biggest player to use their size as an advantage without having to develop other skills. So what often happens, is the biggest player is given the ball and gets used to running their way over smaller opposition. Then in a few years they suddenly find they are no longer the biggest player on the pitch but haven’t got other skills to fall back on and they drop out of the sport altogether.

Another criticism has come from those who have argued that this letter is just directed towards rugby and not other contact sports such as boxing and martial arts. Well there are calls to ban boxing but the difference for me is that boxing is a much more controlled environment whereby you are facing one other opponent, in a smaller space and with strict rules about contact. In rugby, you may be running down the pitch and tackled by a multitude of players from all sides.

So what’s my solution? I definitely think that rugby should not be a compulsory part of PE. I think that all children should be learning to develop other rugby related skills of handling and agility. I think tackling is fine if it is taught in a very controlled environment that focuses upon the technical elements and the development of core strength. But full contact rugby is not necessary at school level. It can be brought into the game once children have developed into adults once they have developed mastery of their body. (Bizarrely enough I think that, for these reasons, full contact rugby may be more appropriate for under 10s than for the 10 – 18 year group!)

And despite what rugby aficionados might think, it might actually result in national players that are more skillful and produce more aesthetically pleasing games!


Philosophy of Sport: Key Questions

I’m just in the process of going through the proofs of my new book which should be out in the next few months. Each chapter is based on a question in the philosophy of sport and contains sub-questions and independent study questions, plus there are chapters of questions addressed to some key figures in the area. So lots of questions… and a few answers! The book is published by Bloomsbury and should be out in late Spring.

Here’s the chapter list:


  1. What is the philosophy of sport?

Interview with Warren Fraleigh

Defining sport

  1. What is sport?
  2. Can cheaters ever win?

Interview with Jim Parry

Sport, knowledge and truth

  1. Are there different types of sporting knowledge?
  2. How can philosophy underpin research in sport?
  3. Is the referee always right?
  4. How much is too much technology in sport?

Interview with R. Scott Kretchmar

Interview with Mike McNamee

Sport, body and mind

  1. Is the body just another sporting tool?
  2. Is sporting success ‘mind over matter’?
  3. Is it right to separate sport according to sex?
  4. Does sport discriminate against transsexual and transgender athletes?
  5. Is elite disability sport an oxymoron?

Interview with Pam Sailors

Interview with Takayuki Hata

Sport and the good life

  1. What is the value of sport?
  2. Is utopia a world full of games?
  3. What is the value of dangerous sport?
  4. Are Olympic values worth aspiring to?

Interview with Randolf Feezell

Interview with Heather Reid

Sport, art and aesthetics

  1. Is sport art?
  2. Does beauty matter in sport?
  3. Is it better to be a purist or partisan when watching sport?

Interview with Stephen Mumford

Interview with Graham McFee

Ethical questions in sport

  1. What is fair play in sport?
  2. Is sport a moral educator?
  3. Is competition morally acceptable?
  4. Is gamesmanship just another skill in sport?
  5. What is wrong with doping in sport?
  6. Do elite athletes deserve hero status?
  7. Is it wrong to be patriotic in sport?
  8. Can you respect someone you’re trying to beat?
  9. Can violent sports be ethical?
  10. Should sport be used as a political tool?
  11. Does commercialism ruin sport?

Interview with Sigmund Loland

Interview with Angela Schneider


Remembering the BBC Micro

First, this post has got nothing to do with sport, philosophy, or politics (which is what pretty every other post on this blog has been about).

It’s about the BBC microcomputer which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Having just read a BBC article about it I thought I’d add my thoughts since it formed such an important part of my childhood.

My dad was always an avid computer fan since first visiting a computer the size of a room in the 1960s which successfully managed to calculate a series of numbers and culminated in the ejection of a card with the answer in binary form. When the first personal computers were being developed in the late 1970s my dad was determined to get one. Unfortunately it took him until 1981 to save up which he did by going without lunch for a year (he also had three small children to support).

One of my earliest memories is of my dad coming home and unpacking our new acquisition. We  set it up on the living room floor (though I doubt as a four year old I was that helpful) and connected it to our black and white TV. Over the next few weeks we practised programming it and even now I have an eery sensation whenever I hear the start up sounds and see the picture of the dot matrix owl.

It was an amazing process for me and even as a five year old I would sit for hours copying out various programmes from magazines – though inevitably there would always be a ‘syntax error at line 160’ which meant they would never run.

Having access to a computer from the beginning of my childhood, and a father who was so enthusiastic about it, gave me an advantage in computing skills that hold me in good stead even 30 years later. I never went into computing and don’t know any current programming languages, but it has given me a ease with computers that many of my peers don’t have. To me, they just seem intuitive. Yes, sure they can be temperamental sometimes but when you have spent hours trying to load a tape onto a BBC micro only for it to fail right at the end, you realise that actually these days they’re pretty reliable and incredibly fast.

I loved my dad’s BBC micro and I feel privileged and thankful that he was interested enough to get me involved: he took me to a weekly computer club – which in my memory was dark and full of bearded men talking over flashing screens and lights. He also took me to see my first film which happened to be Tron.

I have really fond memories of the BBCmicro which gave me a great start in life and the opportunity to spend so much quality time with my dad. Thanks Beeb.

The responsibility of second home owners

I was disappointed to hear on the news today that there have been two hundred objections to the building of a jetty on the Helford that would enable local fishermen to conduct their business in an easier and more efficient way.
It appears that the vast majority of objections come from the owners of second homes in the area (which make up a massive 75% of the local housing stock) on the grounds that a jetty and the subsequent road to the jetty will reduce the aesthetic beauty of the area.
Now, I certainly don’t have an issue with the actual objection (for aesthetic quality of environment is related to the issue of well-being) but rather with those that are making the objection, i.e. those that are not trying to make a (small) living in that very area. By fortune or merit, those second home owners have (by definition) a substantial financial income or asset, and they are showing little respect or empathy with the local population. In a county that receives objective one funding from Europe for its relative deprivation, where wages are among the lowest in the country and the local population struggle to become home owners, the insensitivity shown by these second home owners is gut-wrenching.
Cornwall should not be seen as a playground for the rich to come down and enjoy the beauty it offers but rather a place where real people live trying to make their livelihood. And that is something I urge those objectors to remember.

What if the beautiful game was performance sport?

Following a stimulating first year seminar group this morning, I’ve decided to explore one of the questions that we were discussing further:

What would be the effects if the objectively-evaluative results orientated sports became more subjectively-evaluative performance sports? 

The example we were discussing in class was that of football. The stimulus that got me thinking about this issue was the frequent use in television  soccer programmes of the ‘goal of the month’ or ‘goal of the season’ piece or competition. This seems to provide an indication of an answer to the question, ‘Is a skillfully created move that involves many players and a variety of skill that ends in a goal better than a goal mouth scramble where the ball crosses the line after ricocheting off a defending player?’ – well, ‘yes’ we seem to want to say. Yet, if the outcome is the same for both these situations (i.e. the ball crosses the goal line) then the rules determine that both situations are of equal worth, (i.e. a goal = 1 point).

This leads on to what could be an interesting thought experiment: what if a goal could be worth a variety of points depending on how it was scored? What would it mean for league positions, and moreover, what would it mean for the sport itself?

So this is my project (if I have time). I will now watch Match of the Day (a programme I rarely watch) in order to evaluate the quality of goals scored and produce a league table (of the English Premiership teams) of my own. I feel that I am reasonably qualified to do this as I’m not a particular fan of football and don’t have any affinity to any particular team. I do however, have an appreciation of footballing skill and aesthetic quality, and therefore, my judgements should be as balanced and nonpartisan as they possibly could be.

What the criteria I will use for my judgements remains to be decided. It might be that I decide there will be three or four points available, so teams will receive one point for the aforementioned goalmouth scramble, two for a reasonably produced goal, three for a well worked move or individual skill, and four for an outstanding piece of skillful and beautiful play. The scores will be collated and will be depicted in a table to be compared with the current league table.

As this is merely a thought experiment, the effects that the change of scoring criteria has on the game itself will be more speculative. My initial hypothesis is that football would develop to be an even more beautiful and skillful game as players would want to score the highest number of points for each goal. This would ultimately make the game more entertaining to watch which in the professional market economy in which the sport is currently contained would not necessarily be a bad thing.

[I have briefly thought about whether this could work for other sports but have decided to concentrate on football as it is arguably easier to judge aesthetic criteria; for instance, the different positions and skills required in a game such a rugby makes it more difficult to judge whether a try was more skillfully scored – as many front-row stalwarts would argue that a pushover try from a scrum involves as much skill as a creatively worked backs move. Additionally, players are less constrained in football than they are in other sports as to positional or territorial opportunities available, i.e. netball players have are much more limited in the space they have available to play. It might be that the scoring system does work for sports such as tennis, but it will be something that I need to give greater thought to.]