By Russ Banham
ile a wide variety of sports teams are using wearable technology to monitor players’ vital signs, evaluate data, and enhance athletic performance, some sports like rugby are leveraging the high-tech tools to optimize player safety as well.
Rugby is one of the world’s oldest sports, dating back to 1845 at Rugby School in Rugby, England. Although the game is a form of football similar to American football, player safety varies widely.
Like football, rugby players engage in direct physical contact via blocking and tackling techniques used to thwart opponents from progressing down the field. Unlike football, rugby players wear little in the way of padding and forego helmets, sporting snug “scrum caps” to prevent cauliflower ear, an internal bleeding that leads to blood clots in the external part of the ear caused by blunt trauma.
A 2016 study in The American Journal of Sports Medicine that compared the injury rates of rugby and American football players indicated that rugby is the more dangerous sport when it comes to sprains, concussions, and upper extremity injuries. The overall injury rate for football players was tallied at 4.9 per 1,000 players, versus 15.2 per 1,000 players in rugby. “Overall, it seems that rugby is generally associated with more frequent, but lower velocity impacts as compared to American football,” says Brian Hart, a data scientist at Catapult Sports, a maker of sports-focused wearable technologies.
Melbourne, Australia-based Catapult embeds gyroscopes, magnetometers, accelerometers, GPS location tracking, and internet-enabled WiFi computing into its wearable technologies like shoes and jerseys. The technology captures data on player heart rates, body temperature, and other vital signals to sports team coaches for on-the field-monitoring and to sports scientists for safety assessments.
Catapult is currently evaluating head impact risks among rugby players in practice sessions. “The hope is that the data will lead to safer ways of tackling an opponent to reduce the risk of debilitating head trauma injuries, such as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy),” says Gordon Rennie, senior sports scientist at Catapult.
American football has been under siege for the alarmingly high number of CTE cases among retired professional and collegiate players. A recent study by the CTE Center at Boston University, published in the Annals of Neurology, found that the brains of 84 percent of 266 former players had developed CTE, a progressive degenerative brain disease causing depression, amnesia, and dementia.
By comparison, studies of CTE in rugby players appear to downplay the risk. In the June 2019 issue of Acta Neuropathologica, scientific researchers evaluated the donated brains of more than 150 former, deceased players in the National Rugby League. CTE was discovered in two of the specimens.
While not on par with the rate of CTE in former football players, the findings have nonetheless awakened rugby leagues and individual teams to the long-term health consequences of contact-based concussions. “Although the prevalence [of CTE] is less evident, there have been discoveries,” says Hart. “Anecdotally, one chain of thought is that the lack of pads and helmets in rugby leads to a safer tackling technique and more explicit rules about tackling.”
For Rennie, anecdotal “evidence” is not conclusive proof. He wants to determine which tackling techniques cause the most serious head traumas. Rennie played rugby as an amateur for 20 years, from boyhood through his late-20s, and refers to the sport as his passion. Prior to joining Catapult, he was the elite strength and conditioning coach for the Glasgow Warriors, a professional rugby team in Scotland.
“The contact element is a huge part of the sport and a really hot topic right now, in terms of head trauma,” he says. “The way the sport is played today, if there is a suspicion of head trauma during a play, the player is relieved from the field for a 10-minute period to test his cognitive functioning. Depending on the evaluation of the injury severity, he’s either allowed to return to the field or not.”
Since many teams rely on key players to win the game, and players themselves are compensated based on performance, injured team members may downplay the severity. Reducing the level of head trauma requires clearer information on the causes of the impact, particularly smaller collisions, Rennie explains.
“Viewings of rugby collisions are quite clear and obvious that a head trauma has occurred, but the question that remains unanswered is the impact on the brain of players involved in multiple smaller collisions that don’t get noticed,” he continues. “There are no data points on this, not yet.”
To ferret out the answer, Catapult, in partnership with Prevent Biometrics—a maker of mouthguards embedded with sensors that record and transmit the sheer force of a collision—is engaged in several studies to compare head impacts with the data points like acceleration and deceleration, field position, distance covered, and tackling height captured by Catapult’s wearable technologies.
After the aggregate data is collected and reconciled, the partners will use an algorithm to analyze the physical circumstances that lead to specific head impacts. “The data analytics ultimately will yield crucial information, helping teams make more informed decisions in training drills,” Rennie says. “Coaches can intervene in the practice sessions to restructure the tackling techniques.”
For example, the data analytics may indicate that a player running at a particular distance and speed on the field for a certain amount of time is more prone to a head impact injury caused by a specific type of tackling maneuver. Armed with this information, a coach would be prudent to take the player off the field for a period of time to rest, stabilize, and revitalize.
“Above all, we want to encourage deeper conversations about the best practices on the field from a safety standpoint,” says Jerome Durussel, another Catapult data scientist. “The overarching goal is to work with teams and the research community to devise recommendations that minimize the frequency and magnitude of avoidable head impacts.”
Safer Sports for Future Generations
A similar objective to decrease the number of head concussions has guided the National Football league’s controversial new helmet rule, which bans players from lowering their helmet to initiate contact with an opposing player. The NFL also is examining the use of highly engineered flexible helmets that absorb physical impacts like a car bumper. These actions indicate the seriousness with which the NFL and football teams are addressing the risk of CTE brain injuries.
They also underscore growing concerns over the future of the sport. Many parents don’t allow their children to play football, the country’s most popular sport, according to a recent Gallup poll. The Chicago Tribune reported in August 2019 that high school football participation in Illinois had fallen to a 26-year low, “a sign of the sport’s continuing struggle to attract athletes.”
Rugby has yet to experience a rising tide of parents not wanting their children to participate in the sport, but the backlash is likely coming. More than 70 health experts recently backed a ban on tackling in the children’s form of the game, as reported in the Independent. “Tackling and scrums pose too great a risk of fractures, concussion, dislocated shoulders, spinal injuries, and head injuries for under-18s,” the newspaper stated.
Both rugby and football teams face a future in which fewer athletes will participate and fewer people will attend the events and watch them on television. “Football participation is down even in unexpected places, while soccer and cross-country running have grown significantly,” The New York Times stated in a November 2019 article, “Inside Football’s Campaign to Save the Game.”
As someone who is passionate about rugby’s cultural permanence, Rennie hopes to divert this dystopian course. “My work is driven by player safety and welfare, but my mission is to keep this great sport alive for future generations,” he says.
In this quest to keep the sport alive, digital technology may be the determinant, keeping players healthy throughout their careers and after.
Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated financial journalist and best-selling author.