To deal with its concussion crisis, the NFL is starting to learn from rugby

This is how you do it.
This is how you do it.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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The rugby World Cup has begun (here’s everything you need to know about the sport) and will be broadcast in 207 territories, including the US, which means a huge potential audience of NFL fans who could take an interest in rugby—if for no other reason than to follow the fortunes of the long-suffering US Eagles, who are ranked 15th in the world.

There are some obvious similarities between NFL and rugby; players in both sports smash into each other in their attempt to ground the ball over the other team’s goal line. But one difference is safety.

The concussion scandal in football, which saw the NFL agree to a $1 billion settlement, is forcing coaches and players to rethink how the game is played and the differences in how players from the world of rugby tackle has piqued the interest of NFL coaches.

In American football, helmeted and padded players are taught the “heads-up tackling,” where they take several, small steps before lunging forward with their heads facing upwards, wrap the opposing player, then take them off their feet and to the ground. Rugby players don’t wear helmets and pads—so high tackles that are the norm in football are dangerous and thus banned.

Rugby players who tackle above the shoulder risk giving the other team a penalty or being sent off. Instead, players are taught to get low, keep their head behind the ball carrier, hit with their shoulders, and then grasp the ball carrier’s legs and bring them to the ground.

While there is little definitive evidence that suggests football tackling is more dangerous than rugby, American coaches have began to embrace the latter. The Seattle Seahawks released a video earlier this year, where the head coach explains their new approach to tackling—taking “the head out of the game.”

The video features rugby teams, such as Australia, and drills where Seahawks players practice different tackles, while stressing the importance of tackling with your shoulders. It’s not just professional football making this change; high school football team Kentucky Country Day has also taken up rugby-tackling techniques.

It’s still up for debate whether rugby tackling would reduce head injuries in the NFL but it’s worth a try. There has already been 12 concussions since the NFL season began this month and with the number of head injuries are being watched closely.

Rugby authorities, for their part, are taking no chances in this year’s World Cup, and will be using video technology to assist referees and medics in making important calls after a player’s been injured.