Consulting on players' safety – Rugby Union’s dilemma

Posted on 26th January, 2023


Can some subjects be too important to consult upon?

Spare a thought this morning for Council members of the Rugby Football Union.


Or indeed other Sports Governing bodies who are trying to do the right thing in the face of relentless campaigning by ex-players and public health experts who are now alive to the dangers of some physical contact sports.


They are getting a bad press; consultation, we are told, has been inadequate.

No one disagrees with taking steps to improve player safety, and the RFU – as with other sports, feel they have a particular responsibility to young players and community sportspeople who may lack some of the medical support that the big clubs can provide.


For them, probably having been in intense dialogue (consultation ?) with doctors and coaches it is becoming less a matter of whether but when; less what but how! For them to have conducted a wide-ranging consultation might have posed significant dangers.


Firstly, it would have made them look uncertain, and unsure of this direction of travel. Do you really want to ask, “To what extent should we be improving player safety?”. Secondly, it would appear to be procrastinating. Delay would be inevitable. Thirdly, it would encourage the traditional die-hards to complain about changes to the character of the game. “Remember it’s a contact/collision sport” you hear them say.


And yet, the RFU should have done better. You wonder whether it ever undertook a stakeholder mapping exercise? And worked out how it should engage with the medics, the coaches, the players, the ex-players, the sponsors, the broadcasters, the venues … or the supporters.


Ah, the supporters! Or fans!


My respected friend, Jonathan Bradley of Granicus, and Consultation Institute Fellow reminded me this week how sporting bodies and the clubs continue to underestimate the influence of supporters. Fan power, he asserts is going to be a major force in the 2020’s, having already put paid to the ill-fated proposals for a European football league. Changes of ownership, sponsorship, new stadiums or even new players can all go horribly wrong if supporters are not consulted.


I grew up just outside Llanelli – home of the Scarlets and the area that nurtured the likes of Phil Bennet, Barry John, Carwyn James and about 150 others. If you polled 100 citizens of this rugby-loving town and asked them to choose between participating in a consultation on the impact of net zero policies on local Council buildings or having a say on changes to the tackle rules of rugby, which would they choose?


People want to be consulted about issues that interest them, as well as the issues that may, ultimately affect them, no matter how important. It is not that they expect an undue degree of influence. It is because they see the sport as belonging to them – not to sports administrators and bureaucrats, and definitely not remote – often overseas – owners or sponsors.


In a similar way, local communities see their local hospital as belonging to them – which is why politicians have long since learnt not to make too many changes without an extensive process of local engagement and consultation. But also, GP surgeries, local parks, leisure centres, schools, fire stations, police stations, cathedrals, town centres and other parts of our social infrastructure. In all cases, social cohesion and faith in democracy requires we carry the public with us – and involve them when change becomes necessary.


This may sound a far cry from worrying about the RFU and its putative rule changes. But sports bodies and others are increasingly seeing themselves rightly as part of that social infrastructure and need now to absorb and deploy the skills of public engagement and consultation so that they can share with local communities the Impact Assessment of what they do.


There – we are back to rugby tackles again.


A case of real impact assessment.



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