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Letting children play rugby amounts to child abuse, study says

<i>Mark Kolbe/Getty Images</i><br/>A new study said children playing rugby amounts to child abuse.
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
A new study said children playing rugby amounts to child abuse.

By Issy Ronald, CNN

London (CNN) — Allowing children to play impact sports, such as rugby or boxing, amounts to a form of child abuse, researchers from three British universities said in a new study.

Writing in Sports, Ethics & Philosophy: Journal of the British Philosophy of Sport Association, academics from the University of Winchester, Bournemouth University and Nottingham Trent University concluded that letting children play impact sports contradicts existing British laws that prohibit child abuse, and that the sports’ governing bodies “effectively groom children into sustaining and accepting brain trauma.”

The Rugby Football Union (RFU), the sport’s governing body in England, told CNN that “player welfare has and will continue to be our top priority.” England Boxing had not replied to CNN’s request for comment at the time of publication.

“The child’s brain doesn’t know or care how it was traumatized,” study lead author Eric Anderson, Professor of Sport at the University of Winchester, told CNN. “The injury remains the same. And so we need to stop parents from hitting children in the head as punishment. But we also need to stop children from being hit in the head as a form of play.”

In recent years, the potentially devastating long-term consequences of repeated head impacts in rugby have become clearer and more widely publicized, spotlighted by a group of former players bringing an ongoing legal case against the sport’s governing bodies over the issue of degenerative brain disease.

Some of the former players involved had been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a progressive, degenerative brain disease caused by repeated hits to the head – in their early 40s.

Given this growing body of evidence, the study’s authors argue that laws such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the RFU’s own safeguarding policy, provide “justifiable framework for prohibiting impact sports for children.”

“It’s not actually us terming it child abuse,” study co-author Gary Turner, a PhD student at the University of Winchester and former world champion kickboxer, told CNN.

“It’s the policy position of the day that’s calling it child abuse. What we’ve done is take … the medicolegal position of the day and applied it to sports practices.”

In the UK, where the study was conducted, 8.3% of children aged 5-16 played rugby during the 2022/23 school year, according to data collected by market insight firm Statista.

The study argues that children cannot consent to taking part in highly dangerous activities such as impact sports, nor can adults give informed consent on their behalf.

And while sports organizations “highlight all the health benefits, all the positives, they will … ignore the elements of the sport that are causing harm,” co-author Keith Parry, Head of Department for Sport and Event Management at the University of Bournemouth, told CNN

As a result of their findings, the researchers called for contact in these sports to be restricted until adulthood, citing action taken in other sports, such as English soccer’s Football Association forbidding headers below the age of 12 and UK Athletics prohibiting under-18s from taking part in marathons.

“If we were to invent sports from the get-go today, we wouldn’t be inventing sports that had children hitting their brains,” Anderson said. “But because these are longstanding sports, we have some cultural lore for them. And we’re highlighting that we need to contest that cultural lore and favor children’s brains over the sports themselves.”

The RFU told CNN that it recognizes “contact sport does not appeal to everyone” and that different forms of rugby exist, such as “reduced contact and non-contact.”

It also highlighted the “significant physical and mental health benefits along with life skills gained from a playing team sport which has strong values,” and the steps it said it had taken to mitigate the risks of concussion at grassroots level.

The organization said it “offers resources to support clubs, colleges, schools, universities, players and parents,” and that its concussion awareness program “aligns to the Government’s UK Concussion Guidelines for Grassroots Sport launched last spring.”

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