Academics at the University of Bath are currently conducting research into the biomechanical forces inherent in the rugby scrum. The rationale behind this investigation stems from a premise that the welfare of players should take precedence over all else.
The debate over whether the scrum in rugby is a safe and necessary part of the game is a perennial one which seems to polarise opinion as can be seen in the comments on The Guardian’s article on this. You will get veracious advocates maintaining that one of the key values of rugby compared to the majority of other sports is that it provides an avenue for all body shapes and sizes to perform. Others will state that the front row is a highly technical part of the game that requires important mental tenacity and skills that should remain. Yet the critics point to the serious injuries and long term damage that result from the impact of antagonistic forces on the neck and spine. This is reinforced by the announced retirement of England prop, Phil Vickery, who after several neck operations was advised by doctors that if he continued to play he would do himself even more permanent damage.
There are many philosophical questions that arise from this discussion. First, how much should risk and danger be eliminated from our lives? Do we take a paternalistic stance and limit the type of activities that people can freely choose to participate in? Or do we take a libertarian approach and say that if people want to do dangerous things to themselves, even if it might cause them injury or even death, then we should let them do so?
I’m always inclined to take a libertarian approach to these types of things (although there are some issues surrounding the free choice of children and other vulnerable individuals) but the case of the tight-head prop forward is slightly more complicated than the case of the lone base-jumper. This stems around the notion of ‘free choice’. It is given that there are players who relish each and every scrum as the opportunity to dominate their opposing player and provide an effective platform for the rest of the team. However, as every team knows, these types of front row players, and props in particular are hard to come by. Conduct a poll asking players what position they would ideally play and I suspect back-row and centre will come out on top. Prop forward would be at the bottom. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, it is a technical position that requires immense concentration in order to avoid discomfort at best and serious neck injury at worse. When I started playing rugby (at University) I had no idea what the positions meant and found myself put in at prop having had very limited training. My first match against Cambridge University saw me leave the pitch with three broken ribs. As soon as I recovered I moved to fly-half.
The second reason is that because of the bound nature of the position in the scrum, props (and this is certainly the case at lower levels) often don’t get to appreciate the most valued and essential features of the game, that is; running, passing and tackling. By the time a front row player has extracted herself from the scrum, the ball is over the other side of the pitch and then the whistle is blown for another scrum. At the lower echelons of the game where the basic skills are weaker, front row players find themselves going from one scrum to the next with little opportunity to take part in the rest of the game. This might be accepted by the few players who feel their scrummaging skills are about all they can offer to their team but for all other players who want the opportunity to run with the ball, it is not surprising that there is often a dearth of front row forwards.
This returns us to the problem with the notion of ‘free choice’. If prop forwards are difficult to find and few players openly express a desire to play there, and yet the laws of the game state that a contested scrum is a key part of the game, players may find themselves being reluctantly cajoled into playing there out of a fear of letting their team down.
A few years ago, the Premiership team Clifton was deducted points and relegated for being unable to field a front row. When this is the outcome, it would be unsurprising that players find themselves pressurised to play in these positions. And this is hardly ‘free choice’ is it? Yes, one could take a Sartrean position and say that the player always has a choice (The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre said that if a man held a gun to your head saying ‘Your money or your life’, you still had a free choice!) but we need to recognise that the pressures that players feel from being part of a team mean that they might acquiesce to things that they wouldn’t do if they didn’t feel these social pressures.
So what is the answer to this conundrum then? I would argue that the research conducted by the University of Bath has to be supported by a philosophical investigation into the values and aims of rugby. The results of a biomechanical analysis will offer no insight into what ought to be done. Even if it were concluded that the forces that players were subject to were great enough to cause injury, then it doesn’t provide any advice as to whether this means they should be removed. The inherent risks involved in many things doesn’t mean that they are banned (e.g. alcohol, cigarettes, horse riding, boxing…).
So the answer to this is to decide what it is that is fundamentally important to the game of rugby. What makes it a worthwhile and valuable sport and social activity? And do we wish to eliminate risk or manage it in other ways (e.g. better training for players, coaches and referees)? These are the questions that will really provide an answer to the place of the scrum in rugby.
N.B. There is a new book coming out in December on Ethical Issues in Sports Coaching, of which I have co-authored a chapter on Coaching Dangerous Sports.