The decision to cancel all high school rugby games in Nova Scotia could have a dangerous implication for all student athletes, sport officials say, because it could lead to players hiding injuries.
The Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation (NSSAF) abruptly cancelled the rest of the rugby season Thursday — including the games meant to be played later that day.
The NSSAF cited safety reasons for the decision, and a memo obtained by Global News says that the board of governors at the federation made a “thorough review of incident report data provided by the School Insurance Program.”
The memo indicated there were nearly three times more insurance claims made by rugby players than other sports in the past five years.
The sweeping cancellation came one day after an international student was injured while playing rugby in Cape Breton, but officials at the NSSAF said that didn’t affect their decision.
Paul Hunter, director of national rugby development at Rugby Canada, called the data “suspect” and Nova Scotia doctors agreed that the insurance data didn’t line up with traumas caused by rugby reported in the province.
“Any decision that you make … such as this one, you should have all the information available,” Robert Green, the medical director of Trauma Nova Scotia, told Global News.
“Certainly no one used or asked for any of our Trauma Nova Scotia data before this decision was made.”
Green, who has studied pediatric traumas, said his data showed more injuries were caused by sports like cycling and hockey, with rugby lower on the list.
Hunter said he was worried students in other sports, or rugby players in other provinces, would take the decision in the wrong way.
“The message that it sends out that if you if you speak up and record your injuries you risk your sport being killed,” Hunter told Global News.
“I think that has massive impact on other sports and potentially more serious injuries happening in the sport because we’re not encouraging our athletes to speak about their injuries.”
John Gillis, a local physician who sits on Rugby Nova Scotia’s board and was formerly Rugby Canada’s chief medical officer, also called the decision “dangerous.”
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Gillis said the culture in rugby is one of honesty, and he doesn’t want that to change.
“If we do this and set a precedent whereby sports are getting cancelled because of head injuries, that is going to put a real pressure point on athletes and administrators,” Gillis said.
Gillis said athletes would look at an injury “as a matter of not wanting to let their team or their sport down,” which creates “a risk point where they may not report.”
“That is far more dangerous than anything we’ve talked about,” he said.
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“It’s far worse to not report and get a second impact injury which can be debilitating or life threatening.”
Officials from NSSAF defended their decision Thursday, saying the sport was just not safe.
“Once we determined that rugby was not a safe environment for our students, the board unanimously voted that we should cease playing rugby in the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation.”
As of Friday, Hunter said he hasn’t received any messages that would make him think other provinces are considering the cancelling high school rugby as well.
Impact on the game of rugby
Hunter also worries cancelling high school rugby leagues could hurt other levels of the sport.
“It would most certainly have an impact on our international programs because Nova Scotia has produced international players, both men and women,” Hunter said.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have players come from the Atlantic and specifically from Nova Scotia competing in a national teams and international games,” Hunter said.
Students, parents and coaches in the province were shocked by the decision.
“My team and many others just like it around the province are appalled and distraught over this action,” student athlete Charlotte Thomas wrote as she started a petition to reverse the ruling.
“We all pour time, effort, and money into rugby, and we play the game with passion and heart…. we believe it is in our own interest to decide if we should play or not.”
The petition has over 19,000 signatures as of the time of publication.
Impact on female athletes
In a statement, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston decried the decision by the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation, noting that it had resulted in “widespread shock and anger from the public.”
Houston called the decision shortsighted and said the ban will have a disproportionate impact on female athletes.
Hunter agreed, noting rugby is the only contact sport for women and girls in high school. (Women’s hockey in non-contact in high schools.)
“We have more females participate in rugby in Nova Scotia than we do males, it’s the only contact sport that they have … there is a pathway for women to compete at a higher level than men,” he said.
He noted that many universities offer opportunities for women (and men) and have hosted high school tournaments to scout prospects.
“With no high school rugby in Nova Scotia … there’s not an opportunity for females to compete in international or national level and university sport,” Hunter said.
With files from Rebecca Lau, Alexa MacDonald and the Canadian Press