In any discussion of player safety in American football, rugby inevitably gets invoked in two ways: NFL players are called pussies for wearing body armor, and rugby is pointed to as an example of how players will self-police and self-preserve on tackles when they're not overly protected. Neither of these is strictly accurate, and the National Rugby League—the top level of rugby league in Australia—today banned one of its most dangerous and exciting plays.
It's called the shoulder charge, and it's exactly what it sounds like. Tackling the ballcarrier by launching yourself off your feet, and taking him down with your shoulder or arm. (Exhibit A, Exhibit B.) It's perfect fodder for year-end, Jacked-Up-style highlight reels, and now it's out. After a comprehensive study by an Australian Rugby League commission, the NRL has accepted the recommendations and will ban the move from competition. It's possible that domestic leagues around the world will follow suit.
The commission studied every single tackle made in the 2012 season, and pulled out some interesting numbers on shoulder charges:
- less than 4% of these resulted in injury to the attacking player and less than 1% to the defensive player
- 17% resulted in contact with the head of the attacking player
- players in the Telstra Premiership have grown over the decade from 2002 to 2012 to be on average 4kg heavier, 1.2cm taller and by measure of a superior Body Mass Index, stronger and more powerful
- that the average G-force of the shoulder charge (measured from accelerometer data taken from GPS tracking) was 76% greater than a conventional head-on tackle (10.682 compared to 6.056)
Hits to the head are already banned in the NRL, and shoulder charges have long been banned from sister sport rugby union. It's just another step toward worldwide recognition that athletes can be better protected from themselves—-and, some would say, the neutering of what makes a sport enjoyable. The NRL's Facebook page is inundated with complaints, and a number of coaches have already expressed opposition to the ban.
"Surely there are more important things for the game to be worried about," [Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles coach Geoff] Toovey said yesterday. "I don't understand it. Someone on the commission has a fixed view on it. There has not been enough consultation with the players and coaches who have to live with it. We've got a rule that says it is illegal to hit someone in the head. Isn't that enough?"
"I'm disappointed because collision is a unique part of our game," [Parramatta Eels coach Ricky Stuart] said. "We all shake our heads when it happens in rugby [union] and now it is going to happen in our great game. I thought we had bigger things to worry about."
Another issue, familiar to NFL fans who've seen cheap helmet-to-helmet flags thrown, is how to tell an illegal hit from one that pushes the envelope of clean. "Has he turned sideways into him?" a coach asked rhetorically. "Is he wrapping his arms? We need to be really clear on what's not allowed."
Rugby league is roughly where American football was five years ago. Scientific studies of brain trauma and CTE risk in the sport are in their infancy, but everyone agrees the effects aren't pretty. Teams are being questioned on their handling of concussed players. The NRL's ban is a direct result of increased media attention, after a series of shoulder charges this season ended in injury.
The debates are the same too. A shoulder charge isn't taught as proper tackling technique: hitting a man head on, or wrapping up an attacker with the arms is more effective—but nowhere near as spectacular. Where does personal accountability end, and a league's responsibility begin? Is there a way to balance the 21st century's increasing distaste for bloodsports with the physicality that made them popular in the first place? Rugby league is attempting to get ahead of the curve—or at least ahead of the lawsuits.