Paul Conlon: America should look again at rugby

Dec. 28, 2013 at 6:28 a.m.

Paul Conlon

Paul Conlon

Some of my friends know that I played a little rugby in college, grew to love the game and came to feel that Americans (including myself) have been dealt a tremendous disservice by American sports media. Rugby has been largely overlooked, underexposed and discredited for its contributions to American sports.

Not to mention, American football commentators making six-, even seven-figure salaries routinely misuse words such as "scrum," "ruck" and "maul" during American football broadcasts. If you love American football, you should know that rugby union is, for all intents and purposes, the father of American football - a notion that has gone disremembered for the last century.

And it's the players, too. Just about any time an American football prospect complains that he was cut or denied playing time in the NFL - or in general mopes because he does not have an NFL career anymore - remember this: If these athletes really want to keep going, they can try out for the USA men's national rugby team. The national team looks for elite athletes of all types - be they excellent sprinters, ball handlers, kickers or heavyset, strong linemen. Part of my motivation for writing this piece is that as a fan who buys tickets to watch the U.S. Eagles national squad compete, I can attest to the fact that the team seems so close to taking that next step internationally.

To fans, if you have never been to a test match (an international rugby game) and you want to have a great time as well as see a game played at the highest level of competition, please consider going to see a U.S. home match. They are hosted all over the states; this last year, games occurred in Colorado, Houston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

But I want to make the following brief point: The hit Dec. 15 against Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber - though ruled illegal two days later by Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating - could have been prevented had the NFL adopted more rugby-like policies. Here is how:

In all fairness, I really understand this best from the rugby end, as one who has not only played the game but also has also read the International Rugby Boardlaw book from cover to cover.

The gentleman's game, rugby - unfortunately understood and regarded by some as savage, violent and even barbaric - would not allow for a hit like this to be legal for at least two reasons. First, blocking is essentially illegal in rugby; it is known as obstruction. Second, tackling must be intended only for a ball carrier. The path of a potential tackler to a ball carrier must be just that: a path to the ball carrier. In this way, rugby, played without pads, advocates for a safer game experience than American football with pads. Simply put, in rugby, you cannot legally tackle or force non-ball carriers to the ground.

So if the play that injured Huber happened in a rugby match, what likely would have happened?

If this block on a punter occurred in rugby union after a punt attempt, play would be blown dead by the referee, the referee might eject the offender and a penalty kick would be awarded to Cincinnati. (You may have guessed one of the penalty alternatives that the referee would present to Cincinnati - a shot at three points between the uprights. Sound familiar?) In rugby, the hit on Huber would be an infraction of obstruction because the punter, as a defender, must have a clear path to run down and tackle the ball carrier, unimpeded by physical contact from the ball carrier's teammates.

During these last few days in New York City, this is exactly why competent league executives collaborating with the NFL Officiating Command Center have appeared stumped. Let's review the facts. A serious injury to a player occurred at a reasonable distance from a ball carrier, and the injury is not necessarily a result of malicious intent or unnecessary roughness. How many times have we heard this before? And the reason why this happened, gulp, is not that American football should be transformed into a noncontact flag football experience, but rather, American football needs to stop and reflect on what Dad did differently. Figurative language aside, does every block occurring away from the ball really need to be part of the NFL experience?

I wish the punter and all injured players a speedy, full and healthy recovery. And I want to say to provide enhanced safety for our youth, that we should investigate playing rugby in the United States with American football pads and helmets. Go Eagles.

Paul Conlon is a native Houstonian who received his B.A. from the University of St. Thomas in 2007, his M.B.A from the University of Houston-Victoria in 2011 and his M.L.S. from Rice University in 2013. His research interests include astrophysics, musicology, organizational behavior, rugby and baseball.



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