What can rugby learn from football; and vice versa?

Ok, so this post is based entirely on the play that got Le’Veon Bell knocked out of yesterday’s defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, but I think there are wider issues that are all too evident both from what actually happened, but also from how the NFL treated the situation.

NFL rules are explicit: you lose your helmet, the play is dead.  Years ago, players were fracturing their skulls and dying.  The solution was helmets.  Then helmets became weapons.  If you haven’t already read “League of Denial” you should.  Not least because it clears up a lot of misunderstanding about the role of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the demise of Mike Webster, one of our greatest ever players.  It also tells you exactly how Mike’s life fell apart because of head trauma.  It’s disturbing, upsetting and utterly compelling.  In so far as it is relevant to this post, however, it details the use of helmets in the NFL.

I will immediately acknowledge that if you were to google “helmet to helmet” the chances are you will find out about one of James Harrison’s greatest hits, or perhaps Ryan Clark slamming into Willis McGahee a couple of years ago.  I doubt either man has ever been the same.  Seriously.  Ryan Clark thinks he’s a talk show host.

So, it’s fair to say that the Steelers have had a role to play in the history of the brutal helmet to helmet hit.  BUT…it’s illegal now, and we all know that it is.

So what excuses does Courtney Upshaw have for this?


He went helmet first into Le’Veon Bell’s head.  He might have been trying to hit the ball loose, probably the only play that the Ravens had left by the time Bell made it to inches away from the goal-line, but he didn’t hit the ball, he hit Bell in the head.  He concussed Bell, who was, by all accounts, unconscious when he “scored” the TD that was waved off.

Firstly, and I addressed this point this morning, what advantage does Le’Veon Bell get from having his helmet knocked off WHILE HE IS DIVING FOR THE LINE?  You can’t freeze a play like this at the point his helmet comes off like you could if he lost it at the line of scrimmage on a 10 yard carry in his own half.  He was mid-play, had his helmet knocked off by an illegal hit and then they took the TD away from him.

In addition to losing Bell, we lost the TD and the surprise element that we would have had with our 2 point conversion attempt.  As I noted earlier, Jerricho Cotchery is our “safe pair of hands” at WR this season, but he ended up with the TD, so was inevitable that Jerricho would be doubled for our 2 point attempt.  Instead Ben had to throw to Emmanuel Sanders who had dropped four passes in the game.  He couldn’t make the play and we lost.

For all Joe Flacco’s comments (and I think he reflected on the situation with Tomlin’s “accidental obstruction” with some humor), the play that really should be drawing everyone’s attention today, as Trib columist Dejan Kovacevic has emphasized, is Upshaw’s hit on Bell.

The issue of concussions is becoming more prevalent back home in the UK and Ireland in the sport of rugby.  A series of articles, pioneered by Scotsman columnist Tom English, have highlighted the issue.  Here is one good example, about Irish star Brian O’Driscoll.  Another by former English star Lewis Moody is also worth reading.

Clearly, rugby and football are sports that have developed as collision sports over recent years.  The CTE issue in the NFL goes back to the 1970s, probably much further.  In rugby, the onset of professionalism in the game has seen players get bigger and quicker and as a result, the game has become more brutal.

One notable difference between the two is, of course, the use of helmets.  Rugby players used to wear shoulder pads for a brief period in the 1990s, but that seems to have disappeared.  Most these days would wear little more than McDavid hexpads, much like basketball players.  The point here, however, is that in the same situation as Courtney Upshaw found himself last night, no rugby player would have acted as Upshaw did.  They would have still tried to make a play, but it would have involved using their arms to either hold back the runner or to dislodge the ball.

The comparisons between rugby and football do not really extend far beyond the shape of the ball and the size of the players, but it seems that, with concussion an issue of growing concern in both sports, some lessons could be learned on either side.


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